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Pearlie I. Evans: Civil rights activist and powerful aide to former U.S. Rep. William L. Clay

Pearlie Evans was an activist who became a political power broker.
Wiley Price | St. Louis American | archival photo

Updated 2 p.m. Nov. 21 with service information - Pearlie Evans, a leader in the civil rights movement who helped integrate public accommodations in St. Louis and later served as the top aide to the first African-American congressman from Missouri, has died.

During the 1960s, Ms. Evans was an activist with the Congress for Racial Equality and the NAACP. She marched arm-in-arm with future Congressman William L. “Bill” Clay, Norman Seay, Percy Green and others who were working for change. “We were into everything under the sun,” Clay said.

They believed themselves to be part of a new political movement, one that challenged the old guard of black leadership in St. Louis.

“They felt comfortable with a modicum of progress and we wanted the whole hog,” Clay said. “It was our time. We were no longer going to beg for our rights, we were going to take what was ours.”

In her profile in the 1999 book, Lift Every Voice and Sing, about local African-American leaders, Ms. Evans modestly recalled her role as being “involved in civil rights quite a bit,” noting that she “felt good about every moment.”

Ms. Evans, who lived at her home in north St. Louis for more than 40 years, died this morning (Friday, Nov. 18) after a brief commitment to hospice. She was 84. Services will be held Nov. 26.

In 1972, after working as a social group worker for local nonprofit organizations and city government, Ms. Evans was tapped by Clay to be his 1st Congressional District assistant.

Woman of Courage

A school field trip may have sparked her activism and her career choice. Her class at Lincoln Elementary visited Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house co-founded by pioneering social worker Jane Addams. Nearby was a huge amusement park, like the old Forest Park Highlands. The Highlands was one of the many places in St. Louis where African-Americans  were not allowed to go, when Ms. Evans was a girl. As she grew up, she never forgot the work of Addams – and how far her class had to travel to enjoy an amusement park.

In 1955, shortly after receiving her master’s degree, Ms. Evans went to work at Sherwood Forest, an all-white, all-female youth camp in Troy, Missouri. She was the camp’s first African-American counselor. She soon began working at United Church of Christ Neighborhood Houses. When not at the settlement house, she was becoming increasingly active in civil rights.

“Norman Seay, Bill Clay and I worked to open up places around St. Louis for blacks,” Ms. Evans said in her profile in Lift Every Voice and Sing. Those places included Howard Johnson’s, White Castle and, in 1963, Jefferson Bank. When the bank demonstrators were jailed for demanding white-collar jobs for blacks, a small group of African-American women worked behind the scenes to publicize their plight and to raise bail money. The group included Ms. Evans, Gwen Giles (who became a state senator) and Margaret Bush Wilson (who became a noted civil rights attorney).

The following year, Ms. Evans and journalist Betty Lee went to Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Medgar Evers. She recalled a hazardous trip in A Magazine. They lay on the floor of the car during the ride to Evers’ brother’s house as whites in a car following them fired shots.

Back in St. Louis, the two friends were soon in jail together. Inmates in the city jail were protesting their living conditions by setting mattresses on fire. Ms. Evans and Lee were called on to help quell the unrest. As they negotiated on behalf of the prisoners, they were  hit with pepper spray and water hoses.

“I have never gotten over what the police department did,” Ms. Evans said in her profile. “But we got it settled.”

In 1965, she marched in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, in the fight for black voting rights.

A powerful congressional aide

That same year, Clay was enlisted to recruit Ms. Evans to work as a public service commissioner in Mayor  A.J. Cervantes' administration. She initially rejected the offer, even though the job came with a hefty pay increase.

“It took me two lunches and a dinner before she took the job,” Clay laughed.

U.S. Rep. Bill Clay and Pearlie Evans are pictured with John Bass, who became the city's first African-American comptroller.
Credit Provided by U.S. Rep. Bill Clay
U.S. Rep. Bill Clay and Pearlie Evans are pictured with John Bass, who became the city's first African-American comptroller.

For seven years, Ms. Evans worked as a commissioner of housing and relocation for St. Louis, providing social services to the elderly and families. Then Clay came calling again.

Ms Evans had worked as a volunteer when Clay first ran for Congress in 1968. Now he wanted her to work for him full-time as his district aide and run the William L. Clay Scholarship and Research Fund. She agreed.

The city’s black committeemen balked.

“The ugly head of sexism reared,” Clay wrote in his book, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grassroots, but he would not relent.

“I said ‘she’s going to run my office’,” Clay said recently. And for 26 years, she did just that.

Ms. Evans, by all accounts, became one of the most powerful congressional aides in the state if not the nation, and she wielded that power with a combination of honey and vinegar.

“She was very effective in convincing people and the ones she didn’t convince, she instilled a certain amount of fear,” Clay recalled, with a laugh.

In time, Clay said, the men who originally objected to Ms. Evans, along with many others, sought her advice and counsel, especially about the census and redistricting, areas in which she became an expert. Clay credits her in helping develop the political strategy that helped to elect numerous Democrats to office.

Over the years, Ms. Evans became highly sought-after as a coordinator and political strategist for many of the region's black officeholders, including Comptroller Darlene Green, former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and former Circuit Clerk Mavis Thompson.

When Clay followed Ms. Evans into retirement in 2000, his son, William Lacy Clay, succeeded him; Ms. Evans was Lacy Clay’s campaign manager.

Turtle Philosophy

Pearlie Ingram Evans, who traced her roots to the Fulani people in West Africa, was born Feb. 16, 1932, in Dell, Arkansas. She was the daughter of a bricklayer, Oscar Ingram Jr., and Dora Jackson Ingram. The family moved to the south side of St. Louis when Ms. Evans was still in grade school.

Bill Clay was still in Congress in 1998, when this picture with Pearlie Evans was taken.
Credit Provided by U.S. Rep. Bill Clay
Bill Clay was still in Congress in 1998, when this picture with Ms. Evans was taken.

She graduated from Vashon High School and then earned a degree in sociology and political science from Lincoln University. While attending Lincoln University, Ms. Evans became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. In 2000, she was appointed by Gov. Mel Carnahan to serve on the board of curators of her alma mater.

In 1955, Ms. Evans was one of two African-American women in her class at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, where she earned her master’s degree and later served as a practicum instructor. When a school-sponsored event at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel barred African-Americans, Evans and a few friends picketed the hotel.

Ms. Evans traveled the world with a purpose. In the early ’70s, she was a consultant for the Rutgers University Forum for International Studies in Accra, Ghana. She attended conferences and cultural seminars throughout Africa, Europe and Asia and directed day camps for children and adult sugar cane workers for the YWCA in Jamaica.

For many years, Ms. Evans represented Missouri’s First Congressional District at Democratic National Conventions and she served as the Missouri coordinator for voter registration with Operation Big Vote. She was honored as a life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and the NAACP.

Ms. Evans was a prolific collector of turtles and drew wisdom from them. In a Washington University Magazine article in 1996, she explained why: “The turtle has to stick its neck out, but it always covers its tail when it does.”

She was preceded in death by her parents, her brother, Cornelius “Carl” Ingram and her former husband, Johnnie P. Evans.

Survivors include a cousin, Toni Featherstone.

Shortly before her death, she talked with Congressman Clay by phone. A longtime friend, Rosalind Guy, said she overheard the conversation.

“He told her how good she was,” Guy said, “and she told him to be strong.”

The Homegoing Service for Pearlie Evans will be held Saturday, Nov. 26, with visitation at 9 a.m., (the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Ivy Beyond the Wall ceremony at 10:30 a.m. is a members-only event) and services at 11 a.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust St. Rev. Starsky Wilson is officiating.

Memorials would be appreciated to the William L. Clay Scholarship and Research Fund and Community Women Against Hardship.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.