On a recent Friday in January, there are few visitors at the African American Museum of Nassau County, but executive director Joysetta Pearse is hard at work, showing a guest around the museum that has become her labor of love.
"There's a painting here that's organic," Pearse, 75, of Freeport, says with the enthusiasm of a grandmother showing off family photos. She quickly reels off the ingredients used to paint "The Healer," one of 22 vibrantly colorful works on display by Brazilian artist Ernani Silva, who lives in Massapequa. "It's made with rice, sugar, cinnamon, mustard, paprika and other healing herbs," Pearse explains.
Elsewhere in the museum's bright main gallery is another of Pearse's favorite displays. "The Black Royals: Queen Charlotte" exhibit includes a portrait of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose mulatto features were derided by contemporaries as "ugly."
Pearse says, "In the third or fourth grade, we learned that in 1776, we sent the Declaration of Independence to King George III [Queen Charlotte's husband]. We learned that he had lost his mind, and that he was institutionalized. But they neglected to tell us that he was married to a woman who was of African descent."
How the museum came to be
Charlotte's story is the kind of "hidden history" Pearse sees as central to her mission as she enters her second year at the helm of Long Island's only public museum dedicated to the art, history and traditions of African-Americans.
The museum has its roots in a 1968 Black History Month exhibit at Nassau Community College. Housed for years inside a Hempstead storefront, it moved in 1985 to its current location, a building owned by Nassau County.
A year ago, the African-Atlantic Genealogical Society, an organization founded by Pearse and her husband, Julius, 80, took over management of the museum that now occupies a 6,000-square-foot space at the corner of North Franklin and Jackson streets in Hempstead Village. She serves as executive director; he is president; both volunteer their time to run the museum and view their roles as a partnership.
"We both take a very vital part in developing the programs," Julius says.
Why would Joysetta Pearse, who has two daughters, five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren -- take on this major responsibility when others might be content to rest on their laurels? "I have such a need to give people information," Pearse says. "There's so much history that is unknown."
Julius Pearse is a part of black history on Long Island. He was the first African-American police officer hired by the Village of Freeport in the 1960s, retiring in 1984. From the 1980s through 2002, he and his wife ran a private investigation firm, Jul-Joy Associates Inc. in Freeport.
Discovering people's roots
Joysetta Pearse developed an interest in genealogy after attending a lecture on the subject at Hofstra University, and she and Julius have since used some of their investigative skills to help at least 300 families discover their roots.
When they were offered the opportunity to manage the museum, Pearse says, "I was already there in the genealogy room, so it was just a matter of adding to my responsibilities." She is currently president of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island.
In addition to unearthing hidden history, another goal is to attract more walk-ins. Most of the current visitors are local elementary and secondary students on field trips, and college students from the New Opportunities at Hofstra (NOAH) program. Saturday arts classes also draw foot traffic, as do occasional special programs, such as a memorial for Nelson Mandela, the late South African statesman and global icon.
In early January, a crowd of about 200 attended the memorial, which featured a traditional South African gumboot dancing demonstration by the Gloria Eve School of the Arts in Hempstead.
The museum has about 5,000 visitors a year, To build attendance, Pearse and her small staff ask guests for their email addresses as they enter the lobby. "We don't have a lot of funds to do snail mail," she explains, "so we capture people when they come in." Since becoming executive director, she has added more than 500 addresses to the museum's email blasts.
It's also been a challenge to complete the renovations begun by the museum's previous director-curator, David Byer-Tyre. Pearse says that because of Nassau County's fiscal problems "you can't spend the taxpayers' money for museum programs or payroll." However, she says she and her husband have raised $39,000 from museum rental fees and grants for needed updates. They've removed carpeting and installed linoleum in some rooms, repainted walls, and bought a $400 temperature gauge to improve climate control. Pearse hopes the improvements will make the museum attractive to more traveling exhibits.
"I believe her intention of trying to get more exhibits to the museum is extremely important," says Corine Thompson of Rockville Centre. Last year, Thompson donated artwork valued at $13,000 to the museum, including pieces by James Counts, a founder of the Long Island Black Artist Association, and two other artists. The pieces had been collected by her late husband, Dr. Eugene Thompson.
"I'm an African-American," Thompson said. "They are all black artists, and I thought it would be good to give it [the artwork] to the museum, so they could do something to educate people in the area about them."
Gems of the collection
The pieces are currently on display in the museum's fireplace room. Because of limited storage space, the permanent collection numbers only 80 items, but it contains gems. At the front of the auditorium, there's a piano and a piano bench covered with African cloth from legendary songwriter Eubie Blake's Bedford Stuyvesant home. Blake, who died in 1983, is known for such standards as, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," written with Noble Sissle.
"Not a lot of African American history is taught in schools," Pearse says. "They don't know about Susan McKinney, the first African-American doctor in New York State. They don't know about Mum Bett [aka Elizabeth Freeman], a Massachusetts slave who was the first person to sue for her freedom, or Madame C.J. Walker [a hair-care product entrepreneur], who was the first American woman of any racial background to earn $1 million."
If Pearse realizes her goals, Long Islanders of all ages will learn about the contributions of these pioneers and many others. Sitting at her desk in an office decorated with paintings by contemporary black artists, Pearse says, "I like doing this. I don't consider it a job. I love it when people say, 'I really learned something here today.' "
HOLDING COURT ON ALTHEA GIBSON
In celebration of Black History Month, the African American History Museum of Nassau County will host an hourlong program on Thursday, Feb. 6 at 10 a.m. about the late tennis great Althea Gibson, the first black female to win at Wimbledon. Schoolchildren and a representative from the Hempstead Post Office will unveil a large reproduction of the Althea Gibson Black Heritage stamp issued in August. Museum executives and genealogy experts Joysetta and Julius Pearse will discuss Gibson's ancestry. The special program is free.
The museum is at 110 N. Franklin St., Hempstead. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $3. Call 516-572-0730, or visit theaamuseum.org.