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*On this date, Pearl Bailey was born in 1918. This African American singer, actress and entertainer, known for her comedic timing and charm, was honored for her service to American troops, and named as special delegate to the United Nations (UN).
She was born in Newport News, Virginia, but soon moved to Washington D.C. and then to Philadelphia. Her stage-singing debut came when she was 15 years old. Bailey’s brother Bill was beginning his own career as a tap dancer, and suggested she enter an amateur contest at Philadelphia’s Pearl Theater. She entered, won first prize, later won a similar contest at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, and decided to pursue a career in entertainment.
Bailey began by singing and dancing in Philadelphia’s black nightclubs in the 1930s, and soon started performing in other parts of the East Coast. In 1941, during World War II, Bailey toured the country with the USO, performing for American troops. After the tour, she settled in New York. Her solo successes as a nightclub performer were followed by acts with such entertainers as Cab Calloway. In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman. As an actress, Bailey was known for her mix of charm and comedic timing. Bailey was in the cast of the film Carmen Jones in 1954 and continued to tour and record albums in between her stage and screen performances.
She also appeared regularly on television variety shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Bailey was married to John Randolph Pinkett Jr. and performer Louis Bellson. In 1967, Bailey returned to Broadway with the title role in an all-Black production of Hello, Dolly! She won a Tony Award for that role in 1968. Bailey was also named a special delegate to the United Nations under the Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations. In 1971, she hosted her own ABC-TV variety show. She announced her retirement from show business in 1975. While in her sixties, Bailey decided to complete her education, and in 1985, she received a B.A. in Theology from Georgetown University.
In 1988, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Pearl Bailey died in Philadelphia in 1990.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
The Ghost Walks:
A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865-1910
Henry T. Sampson
Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ., 1988)