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Joysetta Pearse, director of Nassau County's Black history museum, dies at 82

Joysetta Pearse at the museum in Hempstead in

Joysetta Pearse at the museum in Hempstead in 2019. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Joysetta Pearse possessed a keen intellect that drove her to investigate the "hidden" contributions of Black Americans, and to educate others about them in her role as director of Nassau County's Black history museum in Hempstead, which was recently renamed in her and her husband's honor.

It's now called the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County, in recognition of the couple's longtime association with it. And family and friends say Joysetta Pearse was dedicated to it.

She lived a life that took her into many different places professionally. And what shone through it all, family and friends say, was Pearse's kind and generous spirit.

"She was a beacon to so many people," said daughter Elena Lennon of Freeport. "People always feel like they are her adopted children because she takes the time to get to know folks, understand where they're from, where they want to go."

Lennon added, "She spent her life helping, educating and introducing people to new things."

Julius Pearse said of his wife: "She was forgiving. ... She never held a grudge against anything that you did. It was over." He said that trait "definitely" sustained their marriage over 41 years in their blended household in Freeport. Both had been married previously.

Joysetta Pearse died Friday of cancer at the Meadowbrook Care Center in Freeport. She was 82.

She was remembered fondly by county lawmakers just weeks after officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month to rename the museum in the Pearses' honor.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, in a tweet over the weekend, called her "my friend Joysetta Pearse -- a trailblazing icon of Black history on Long Island. Joysetta and her husband Julius have served our County with distinction for nearly six decades."

In calling for a moment of silence during a Nassau County Legislature meeting Monday, Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) called Pearse a "matriarch of the history of Nassau County" who "gave her full heart to that museum."

On Facebook, the legislature's minority leader, Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), wrote: "There are some people who you expect to walk this earth 'forever' and when you hear of their transition, it touches you deeply. I am glad she received some of her flowers while she could smell and touch them. My colleagues and I were happy to rename the museum after the dynamic couple."

In a statement, Legis. Debra Mule (D-Freeport) cited Pearse's "passion for educating and inspiring future generations."

Barbara Powell, president of the Hempstead branch of the NAACP, lauded her longtime friend's "wealth of knowledge. I always say she was a walking encyclopedia." She said Pearse loomed large in the community. "That was our queen."

Joysetta Marsh Pearse was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of Dorothy Mooney and Theodore Albert Marsh. She was the oldest of five siblings. She had four brothers, only one of whom survives her, Julius Pearse said.

Pearse graduated from Bishop McDonald High School. She received an associate's degree from Nassau Community College and a bachelor's degree from Adelphi University in Garden City. She also was a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society, according to another daughter, Tonia J. Mitchell of Freeport.

She worked for New York Telephone, first as a directory assistance operator, but rose through the ranks of what would later become NYNEX and ended her career there as a vendor administration manager, Mitchell said.

As a member of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club in the 1980s, she traveled to Ethiopia to work with women on starting businesses, her daughters said. For a time, the couple ran a private investigation firms, Jul-Joy Associates in Freeport.

She had a passion for genealogical research. She and her husband founded the African Atlantic Genealogical Society in 1994 and became affiliated with the museum in 1998. After years of managing the museum, she became its director in 2012.

She told Newsday in an article published this month that she wanted to tell the stories of people beyond well-known Black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.

"I wanted to bring information to people about people no one knew anything about who did wonderful things," Pearse 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."

Her funeral is scheduled for Monday, noon to 2 p.m., at the Carl C. Burnett Funeral Home in Hempstead. A memorial service is planned for June 27 from noon to 2 p.m. at the museum on Franklin Street in Hempstead.

Besides her husband and daughters, Pearse's survivors include stepchildren Gary Pearse of Freeport, Dennis Pearse of Marlboro County, South Carolina, and Sandra Jeffries of Uniondale; a brother, Brian Marsh of Brooklyn; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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