The voice is quieter, the body slower, but at the age of 83, Pearl White, the “Matriarch of Oakwood”, is still a force to be reckoned with and she won´t let you forget it.
Pearl was born speaking her mind. As a young child in Galveston Texas she and her siblings, influenced by their minister father, engaged in neighborhood activities to better the lives of the blacks in their community. “Everything was Jim Crow in Texas. We had no rights at that time,” says Pearl. “We´d go down to the corner and have ourselves a ball getting all the people around.” One instance she recalls is opening up a white playground to children of all races. “I love doing this kind of work and I´ve been doing it ever since,” she adds.
Pearl followed her sister to Venice in the 40s. “My sister and her husband weren´t even registered to vote,” she says. A block-by-block effort in Oakwood was organized to register people to vote. People were taught to read and write so they could go to the polls. Hispanics were helped to get citizenship. “I started to do that when I was eleven years old,” says Pearl. “My father taught us because he wanted to make sure the Republicans wouldn´t get in.”
This was only the beginning of Pearl´s community work during the last 50 years. At one point, she says, “We still couldn´t use the beach and live north of Rose Ave.”. She helped create and participated in many social service programs such as Head Start and the Poverty Program plus assisted with the initial formation of St. Joseph Center, the Venice Family Clinic, the Israel Levin Senior Citizen Center and the Oakwood Recreation Center. She was instrumental in the removal of the oilrigs from the beach and the construction of the Pavilion. Her strong crusade against drugs and gang violence in Oakwood is legendary. Of course, we can´t forget the Pearl White Theatre of Performing Arts, which started in 1975 and was sponsored by actors Beau Bridges and his father Lloyd. “It was something for the children to feel good about themselves,” says Pearl.
Many people have helped Pearl. “You can´t get along without people,” she says. She and Flora Chavez started a community service organization in West Los Angeles in the 40s. “She’s white, she married a Latino, I´m black, but she´s my very best friend,” says Pearl. Pearl also acknowledges the help from a former owner of the Roosterfish. “We helped the young gay browns and blacks. We had a party for the kids every year.” She has been on a first name basis with government officials in Los Angeles and from Sacramento to Washington D.C. through the years. “Politicians would say, ‘You can always count on this area’,” says Pearl.
Pearl is also on a first name basis with many celebrities besides the Bridges. Among her numerous awards is one received from Carol Burnett and Carol´s daughter, Carrie, for her community service work with drugs. She was honored at a dinner in Century City. Another side of Pearl came to the surface when she brought up her relationship with Barbra Streisand, Barbra´s ex-husband Elliot Gould and their son Jason. “When your children have problems, you don´t go around talking about it,” says Pearl.
Not everyone has wanted to see Pearl succeed in her efforts. “People threaten me all the time,” she says. “They want me to forget about Oakwood. If I didn´t, I have to remember Jim Richards. Jim and I worked very close together. I´ve always had bad eyesight and he took over with that. We´d take down license plate numbers and go to the DMV downtown to find out where these people lived. We´d make flyers and take them to the areas where they lived and put them all out there. This car with this license number was seen buying dope at such and such a place.”
Pearl has been invited to travel to different countries by Louis Farrakhan. “I don´t believe in what he´s doing,” says Pearl. “If I can´t help people here in the United States, why go out of the United States to do it.”
While Pearl has worked so hard to improve the lives of others, her own life hasn´t been easy. She owned several pieces of property in Oakwood before Prop 13 went into effect. “I had no job where I could earn money to pay my taxes and still had notes to pay. Banks wouldn´t lend money. Black people were redlined. I was such a big voice. They wanted to get the people out that were hollerin´ and everything.” She lost her property and was three months pregnant when she found out that she had ovarian cancer. “I didn´t want an abortion,” says Pearl. “I didn´t think I´d be able to have another child. I´d lost others and I knew this was my last chance. I put my hands in God and had a healthy baby.” Pearl has been fighting different types of cancer ever since. She has a bad heart after suffering several heart attacks and strokes. She has diabetes and has been completely disabled since 1996. Adult Protective Services is currently investigating Pearl. “They want to know if I´m crazy,” she says. She also fears losing the home, originally owned by her now deceased sister, where she has been living for the last 40 years.
There is nothing that deters Pearl. “By me being weak now I think if I ever get my strength back, then for an 83-year old woman, that is pretty good. I´m just thankful that I´m living. I´ve decided there are so many things happening around here I´m going to raise my voice again. I can´t help if people come to me with these things. I´ve been doing it so long. I get so nervous that it´s going to make me sick. It´s going to make me sick if I don´t do something. I´m doing it because … I don´t know why I´m doing it. To tell you the truth, if I would be like all the rest, I would close my mouth and keep it all in. I just can´t help it. If I could stop, I would. If God gets ready for me, I´m going to do as much as I can before he takes me.”
What is most important to Pearl now? “It´s the young people, they´re the ones we have to reach. We have to do that through the schools, the churches and up and down the street,” she says. Just like how Pearl started in Oakwood going door-to-door to register people to vote, her best way of reaching the people is by pounding the pavement … now in a wheelchair.