When Joysetta Pearse started dating her husband, Julius, what really drew her in was his knowledge of Black history.
"I had never had a Black history class in my life," said Joysetta, 83. "I graduated from high school in 1956, and no Black history was being taught. One of the first things Julius told me was his great-grandmother was a slave, then he started telling me about slavery and the Underground Railroad, and other things …"
Today it’s both Julius and Joysetta Pearse who know tons about Black history. Indeed, passing along that knowledge has become their mission in life. Joysetta is the longtime director of the newly christened Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County.
Julius, who in 1962 became Freeport’s first Black police officer, is a volunteer manager and researcher at the museum. He’s also president of the African Atlantic Genealogical Society, which the two founded in 1994 and affiliated with the museum in 1998. For a time, the couple ran a private investigation firms, Jul-Joy Associates in Freeport.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran referred to the couple as "local living legends" and "icons of Black history."
A ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by Curran and other Long Island dignitaries and community members, was held May 18 for the museum, formerly African American Museum of Nassau County.
The museum, at 110 N. Franklin St., is the only public museum on Long Island dedicated to the art, history and traditions of Black people throughout the world; it was recently granted the Museum Preservation Award by American Legacy Magazine as one of only 10 museums recognized for preserving Black history.
"It’s amazing," Joysetta, who was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, told Newsday a week after the ribbon cutting.
A changed perspective
Being highly regarded in the context of Black history is something Joysetta has found unexpected. As a child, she said, she thought all people were the same and shared the same experiences.
"I didn’t know my grandfather, John J. Mooney, was white when I was growing up," Joysetta said. "His father, Daniel Mooney, came here from Ireland in 1849 fleeing the potato famine." He lived in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan that was home to mostly poor immigrants who began arriving in the early 1820s. It was in that neighborhood that Joysetta’s grandparents met.
"It was an Irish neighborhood with a lot of Black entertainment," she said. Her grandparents met at a club there, started dating and got married in 1915. Her grandmother, Dorothy "Dot" Mooney, was a singer. Joysetta’s father, Albert "Snookey" Marsh, was an "all-around entertainer," who emceed at The Apollo and Small’s Paradise in Harlem and at the Baby Grand in Brooklyn.
Joysetta, who has four brothers, said that because her grandfather was white, the complexions of the children in the family varied. "The children came out in everything from white to tan, so I didn’t know my grandfather was white or what that meant," she explained. She said it wasn’t until one day when her grandfather was bringing fresh-baked doughnuts to her house that another little Black girl spotted him and yelled, "He’s white!"
Being only 8, Joysetta said, she couldn’t understand why that was significant, even if it was true.
"I’m thinking I did something wrong [because of the other girl’s reaction]," Joysetta recalled. "I asked my grandmother if my grandfather was white — I didn’t know there were white people." This was despite the fact that Joysetta’s family was living in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn at the time.
"I really never had any kind of segregation issue in Brownsville," which Joysetta described as largely Jewish at the time.
Joysetta was 40 when she met Julius at the Freeport Village police station. Her husband at that time had been killed in a robbery, and Julius, the village’s first Black police officer, helped her fill out a crime-victim form.
Awareness of history
Julius Pearse, 87, had lived some of the darkest chapters of Black history by the time he met Joysetta. His family talked regularly about their experiences — and those of other Black families — in the South.
Julius' mother, Amanda Davis Pearse, had worked as a maid; his father, Willie Edward Pearse, worked as a cook. The family lived on a farm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Julius was born.
After attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, majoring in chemistry and minoring in math, he set his sights on becoming a lawyer.
"I was told I wouldn’t be successful with the Ku Klux Klan and segregation at their peak," Julius recalled. "I had attempted to desegregate the bus system in Hamlet, North Carolina, and there were incidents with the Ku Klux Klan."
In 1953 he moved to New York to live with an aunt, Mary Pearse, in Far Rockaway, Queens, fleeing the segregated South and the Klan.
Once in New York, Julius got jobs driving a cab, working in a factory, doing housework, being a butler and chauffeur. He was a bartender, bouncer, singer and bodyguard for celebrities at Club Carib in Inwood on Long Island. When he served in the military in the late 1950s, he became the first Black singer in the U.S. Army Band. Black police officers who visited Club Carib one night suggested he consider becoming a police officer as a good, stable occupation.
"An NAACP member suggested I apply in Glen Cove, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre or Freeport because that’s where they had Black communities," Julius said. He got accepted at Freeport — on paper.
Julius said he knew what was ahead when a sergeant visited his home for an interview — and his face changed when he saw Julius was Black. The officer falsely advised Julius to apply for a job with Nassau County police, he said, because the pay and benefits were better — though they were exactly the same. Accustomed to standing his ground, Julius stuck with Freeport.
Tough times followed, Julius said. He bought his own uniform and shoes after being told those in the department wouldn’t fit him. He regularly heard racial jokes, comments and slurs.
"They were trying to get me angry so I’d do something and get fired, but they saw that I wasn’t going anywhere," Julius said. He retired in 1983 as a detective after serving 21 years.
A changing community
The Pearses got married in 1979 and settled in Joysetta's house in Freeport, where the community initially had not been welcoming. Joysetta had come to like Long Island from visiting uncles who lived in Baldwin and Roosevelt; Julius had lived in Inwood, Woodmere and Hempstead before settling in Freeport. The couple moved into the five-bedroom ranch house, which they own today.
"Didn’t they give us the blues," Joysetta said of first moving to the neighborhood. "We were the first Black family to move into the Meister Beach area, and the neighbors were threatening the sellers of our home not to sell it to Black people. They sold it anyway because they were moving."
Joysetta said she didn’t feel comfortable being seen out and about.
"I would go out, do what I had to do, and then I’d go back in the house," she said. One day she heard a commotion outside while her kids were playing. Other children in the neighborhood had called them them a racial slur.
Joysetta said all that has changed.
"I have the sweetest, loveliest neighbors today that I could ever want to have," she said. "Most of those original families have gone, and now there are Black families throughout the blocks. Everyone who moved here to get away from Black people moved out."
The Pearses’ management of the museum came about after they started doing free genealogy searches there as part of a program. And in 2012, Joysetta was asked about running the museum when the director left. Joysetta saw it as an opportunity to change the focus from African artifacts to telling stories about "hidden" Black history.
She wanted to tell the stories of others besides such well-known Black historical figures as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
"I wanted to bring information to people about people no one knew anything about who did wonderful things," Joysetta said. "So many Black people had been told they had no history except that they were slaves — that makes you feel either ashamed or angry, and I wanted to show a more balanced view."
Building a museum
The museum had gotten its unofficial start in February 1968, when an exhibit was set up by Leroy Leonardo Ramsey — a Black professor — at Nassau Community College to celebrate Black History Month. At the end of the month, the exhibit was kept up because of popular demand.
The collection moved to a space on Main Street in Hempstead where it stayed until 1985, when it was given its new home at 110 N. Franklin St.
Joysetta said Ramsey’s artifacts, which were displayed, included slave shackles, even for babies. She wanted to change how the history was represented, transitioning to large panels with images so that visitors could take photos and easily share information with others.
Subjects of exhibits have ranged from Pyrrhus Concer, a former slave from Southampton who worked on whale ships out of Sag Harbor, to local jazz greats and Black royalty. The museum also presents educational programs relating to Black history.
There are six rooms of displays, including a permanent exhibit, "Black Royals." Among those featured is Queen Philippa. "The artists falsified history," Joysetta explained. "She was described to her future father-in-law, King Edward ll, as having ‘brown skin all over,’ yet she appears in the portrait as white."
Joysetta said she wants visitors to the museum to think differently. "Your complexion doesn’t matter," she said. "It’s what you accomplish in life that people measure you by."
Curran said the idea for the renaming the museum came from the president of the Hempstead branch of the NAACP, Barbara Powell. Powell’s late father, Seldon Powell, was a tenor saxophonist and flutist whose story is part of an exhibit that profiles six Long Island jazz greats.
"I’ve known them for several years," Curran said of the Pearses. "I knew Julius through law enforcement circles and Joysetta from my many trips to the museum. "The museum is a gem — it gives such insight into civil rights activists, musicians and writers from Long Island and beyond," Curran added. "When Barbara suggested it, she said she wanted them [the Pearses] to smell their flowers while they can."
Powell, 58, says she has known the Pearses since "forever." They were friends of her late mother, Barbara V. Powell Sr., a founding member of the Long Island Black Artists Association who ran the Hempstead NAACP for nearly 30 years.
"Mrs. Pearse is like a walking encyclopedia," Powell, said. "I believe the museum should have been named after them [the Pearses] a long time ago. They’re the heart and soul of the museum."
The couple has a blended family four children — Joysetta has two girls and Julius has two boys from previous marriages. They’re also grandparents and great-grandparents. Julius is a cancer survivor and Joysetta is currently battling cancer.
Both said they have no plans to retire from the museum, in fact, hadn't thought about a future without it.
"I plan to do this as long as possible," said Julius, who uses a walker to get around, echoing his wife’s sentiments.