Edward W. Pearson, Sr. was one of the most energetic and creative forces for positive change that Asheville has ever known. From Pearson’s arrival in Asheville in 1906, until his death in 1946, he worked tirelessly to improve the fortunes and the quality of life of his family and his community. Facing many barriers to advancement in a strictly segregated society, he saw not obstacles, but opportunities.
Pearson, a decorated veteran of the Spanish-American war, left school after fourth grade, but he took advantage of every opportunity to learn. He took correspondence courses in insurance, business, religion and law. A savvy business man, he operated a general store in front of his home in West Asheville.
This 1924 photograph shows the interior of Pearson’s store and on the right, the family to whom he was devoted: from left to right, daughter Iola Pearson Byers, son Edward W. Pearson Jr., wife Annis Bradshaw Pearson, and daughter Annette Pearson Cotton.
This photo of the exterior of the store shows it emblazoned with symbols of the fraternal organizations to which Pearson belonged. He was a networker long before the term became fashionable, belonging to the Masons (a Grand Master), the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pythias. He organized and was first president of the Asheville branch of the NAACP. He organized the Mountain City Mutual Insurance Company and ran Piedmont Shoe Company, a mail order shoe business.
He sold real estate, working as an agent for R. B. Hayes, son of the US President, who lived briefly in Asheville. Black residents of Asheville were eager to buy lots in Park View, Pearson’s subdivision for Blacks in West Asheville. A plat map of the subdivision shows the names of property owners, a Who’s Who of Black Asheville, from Dr. William G. Torrence who opened Asheville’s first Black hospital, to men and women listed as cooks and laborers in the 1915 Asheville City Directory.
Pearson’s own property in Park View included land he designated as Pearson Park. There in 1914, Pearson organized the first Buncombe County District Colored Agricultural Fair. Held annually for many years, this fair brought Black residents from all over western North Carolina to enjoy amusement park rides and games and compete for cash prizes in many categories, from baked goods to flower arrangement. Below we see Pearson and his older daughter Annette at the fair of 1945. The last fair was held in 1947, the year after Pearson’s death.
Because Pearson could not attend white only ball games in the days of segregation, he organized Asheville’s first black semi-professional baseball team, the Royal Giants. At Pearson Park and later at Oates Park on Southside, the Royal Giants played against other black teams from surrounding states.
A recent discovery by Pearson’s grandson Clifford Cotton II inspired me to write about E. W. Pearson. Mr. Cotton has generously allowed the NC Collection to scan many photographs and documents that help bring his grandfather back to life for future generations. A few weeks ago Mr. Cotton came to the NC Room to share a new discovery. While cleaning off a porch of his home, he experienced one of those Woo-Woo moments we’ve described here before. Four letters, somehow preserved in the “trash” on the porch, gave Mr. Cotton exciting new information about his grandfather and his mother Annette.
The year was 1935. The Great Depression was lifting, but money was still very scarce, and Mr. Pearson could not afford the tuition for his daughter Annette’s second year at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now NC Central University), the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for African-American students. The four letters between Mr. Pearson and College President Dr. James E. Shepard describe the creative solution the two men figured out for financing Annette’s further education. Mr. Pearson deeded 50 acres of land to the college to be held as security until he was able to pay the tuition bill.
The forum of our blog allows only the most superficial coverage of Mr. Pearson’s many accomplishments. Is there someone out there prepared to write The Book about the life of this inspiring man?
Posted by Betsy Murray