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And when she danced her way across these grounds: Pearl Bailey at Georgetown University

Online Exhibitions
August 14, 2015
October 16, 2015

Singer, actress, humorist and humanitarian Pearl Mae Bailey was born in Newport News, Virginia, the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher in whose church she began singing at an early age.  She moved to Washington, D.C., with her family when she was three.  As a teenager, she sang in night clubs on U Street and later toured with USO troupes during World War II.   Named best newcomer on Broadway for her 1946 New York theater debut in St. Louis Woman, she won a Tony Award for an acclaimed performance as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly in 1968.  Among her best known film roles were Maria in Porgy and Bess and Frankie in Carmen Jones

She accumulated more than a dozen honorary degrees during her career, including one from Georgetown in 1977.  After receiving that degree, she returned to campus the following year as a freshman and earned a B.A. degree in 1985.  Through scans of photographs and documents from the University Archives, this exhibit reflects both her time at Georgetown and the impact she had on the Georgetown community.


Pearl Bailey receiving her honorary degree from Georgetown University, May 22, 1977

Although she had not pursued formal studies since high school, Pearl had harbored an early ambition to become a schoolteacher and had always remained passionately interested in education.  While speaking at commencement, she departed from her prepared text and in the course of her spontaneous remarks said: Who knows, folks. I may be coming to this school.  The following year, she did just that and entered Georgetown as a freshman.

Honorary degree citation for Pearl Bailey, May 22, 1977

In inspired recognition of her profound humanism, her proliferate record of public involvement, and her continuing role in attempting “to close gaps among peoples and nations,” we take deep pride in respecting her as  a daughter of Georgetown forever and also in proclaiming Pearl Bailey Bellson Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa . . . “

“Pearl Bailey to begin G.U. as freshman.” Georgetown News, October 14, 1977

Enrolling at the age of 58 as a full-time member of the freshman class, the singer initially expressed an intention to major in French.  She later switched to Theology, noting in an interview in the Orleans Oracle, Orleans, Massachusetts, August 9, 1979 that: It’s easier to talk with the Lord than it is to know French.

“Pearl Bailey Enrolls As G’town Freshman.” The Hoya, October 29, 1977

This article provides as indication of early student reaction to the enrollment news.

Pearl Bailey arriving for freshman registration, January 16, 1978

Pearl Bailey with students Laurie Fiorillo and Lonnie Schwartz at registration, January 16, 1978

Pearl Bailey with Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs J. Donald Freeze, S.J., and Professor of Economics Lev E. Dobriansky at registration, January 16, 1978

Pearl Bailey at registration, January 16, 1978, with Coach John R. Thompson, Jr., who presented her with season tickets to Hoya basketball games

“Pearl Bailey Opens at GU, Anticipates Four Year Run.” The Hoya, January 20, 1978

Registration took place on January 16, 1978, in McDonough Gymnasium.  Pearl Bailey’s presence attracted a variety of reporters and ensured much greater coverage of the event than was typical.

Pearl Bailey with Georgetown cheerleaders

Pearl always made a great effort to involve herself in campus life, befriending classmates, faculty and administrators.  She even recounted in a Washington Post interview at the time of her graduation how, after a member of an ethics class she was taking invited the class to his house, she found herself compelled to clean his kitchen – an activity that took two hours, such was its condition.  She regularly attended Hoya basketball games, a practice she continued even after graduation.  She would later reminisce in newspaper interviews: When I was in school [at Georgetown], I was out there with the cheerleaders.  Of course, I was the one in the longer pants.  But I’ve been out there on the court and danced with them.  I love to dance.

Pearl Bailey with the Hoya mascot

“Hilltop’s Pearl Makes Encore.” The Hoya, September 15, 1978

Pearl’s progress through Georgetown was covered closely by student reporters, with even her course selection and GPA deemed newsworthy.

Letter from former U.S. President Gerald R. Ford to Georgetown Provost J. Donald Freeze, S.J., dated August 26, 1983, explaining an upcoming class absence

It took Pearl longer than the typical four years to graduate because she had to juggle her studies with various working and charitable commitments, such as one with former President and Mrs. Ford in Grand Rapids, Michigan on October 13, 1983.

Pearl Bailey at commencement, 1985

Graduating at the age of 67, Pearl Bailey was the oldest member of the Class of 1985, which also included basketball star Patrick Ewing.  Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy, S.J., called Pearl up the stage.  After hugging Fr. Healy, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Royden B. Davis, S.J., and Provost J. Donald Freeze, S.J., Pearl spoke to her fellow seniors advising them to remember the Fifth Commandment by honoring the parents who had make it possible for them to attend Georgetown.  She ended by singing a cappella:  Nobody can do it for you but you . . . All your dreams will simply be pinned on you.

At the United Nations, October 6, 1987
United Nations

Note the inscription to Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy, S.J.

Reflections from Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy, S.J., on Pearl Bailey’s time at Georgetown

In 1989, Pearl Bailey published her sixth book which was titled: Between You and Me: A Heartfelt Memoir on Learning, Loving and Living.  A trilogy, its first part, “Go For It, Honey-On To Georgetown,” covers what she described as her beautiful Georgetown years.   She expressed the hope in its preface that it would be an incentive to others, particularly older people like myself, to return to school, and perhaps pursue those goals once dreamed of but put aside.  

Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy, S.J., submitted reflections about her approach to student life and her impact on Georgetown for inclusion: “. . .  And when she danced her way across these grounds, she moved with vibrancy and pride -- she was part of the Georgetown family.  In such small and tender moments, the waves of excitement and countless smiles told me that something special was happening here. And whenever this grande dame returns to this place, the laughter, the love, the joy, the richness of presence pervade these grounds. Indeed, Georgetown is richer for the many gifts of Pearl Bailey.  We are proud to number Pearl among our alumni -- and as a special friend!” 

Pearl Bailey performs at the Salute to Georgetown Bicentennial event, October 1, 1988

The Salute to Georgetown took place in Constitution Hall during the opening weekend of Georgetown’s Bicentennial celebrations.   

Program from Memorial in Honor of Pearl Bailey held at the United Nations, September 18, 1990

Pearl Bailey died in Philadelphia on August 17, 1990.  Among the speakers at the United Nations memorial event was Rabbi Harold White, Jewish Chaplain and lecturer in Theology at Georgetown and a close friend of Pearl’s.  Rabbi White also delivered the homily at her funeral in Philadelphia.

Notice of University Mass for the Late Pearl Bailey, Dahlgren Chapel, October 29, 1990

This was the only public commemorative service in the Washington area, held on campus at the request of her widower, jazz musician Louis Bellson.


Curated by Lynn Conway, University Archivist