Remembered Lives

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Alice Barker as one of the Zanabar Girls in the 1930's

  Alice Barker

“She was chosen because she gave her best, loved what she did and they saw it.”

Dear Bernice:

Gail Campbell with Alice Barker
Gail Campbell with Alice Barker

Thank you for remembering Alice Barker in Our Time Press last week.  I would like to share some thoughts.

When Alice Barker came into the Hucles Nursing Home 10 years ago, I did not know she would change my life forever.

Alice was one of the six original  Zanabar dancers who broke barriers and performed in white-only clubs in lower Manhattan and Harlem with greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and many more.

I was in awe of her stories about Ella Fitzgerald being her best friend and how she had an amazing life doing what she loved–dancing and getting paid for it.

Alice Barker, as a showgirl in the 1930's.
Alice Barker, as a showgirl in the 1930’s.

Alice said it was in her blood. Alice was born in New Orleans; she was an only child raised by a single mother.  She did not know her father.  She began dancing around the house, as she told the story, as a tiny tot, naked, to music.

Alice moved to Chicago as a young girl and when her video went viral we were able to connect with a neighbor who was the daughter of Alice’s best friend.  She told us Alice was one of the most beautiful women she ever knew and she was as sweet as cherry pie.  Everyone thought she was crazy to leave Chicago for New York to become a dancer.

Alice said when she came to New York she found the newspaper and went on the audition for the 6 dancers to become one of the Zanabar girls.

There were hundreds of women from around the world auditioning and she said she was chosen because she gave her best and loved what she did and they saw it.

Alice Barker performing as a Zanabar girl in NY.
Alice Barker performing as a Zanabar girl in NY.

Alice also told the stories of discrimination still having to go through the side doors and not getting paid what the white dancers received performing in 8 shows a day. But Alice said it was worth it because each time you danced at an all-white club you would open doors for other black dancers and she would say that with a wink.

 

Alice was married to a well-known drummer named Wallace Bishop. They had no children. She told the story of how when she came on stage “he played a different beat”. And that’s how she knew he liked her.

 

Alice was a woman ahead of her time.  She said Wallace became jealous of her career and wanted her to stop dancing and have children.  Alice said she chose her career and left the marriage.  Soon after, she was the first black woman to dance on television with Frank Sinatra.

 

Alice believed that everyone has a gift.  She said, “It’s up to you to find it and tap into it and you will live a meaningful life”.  Like she did. This is the reason I searched for years for her films.

 

I found her name on a soundies’ site with other black chorus girls’ names.  Dave, my friend for years,  a filmmaker and a friend of Alice, contacted Alicia Meyers, a researcher who made a film about black chorus girls.  She informed us that everyone knew Alice as “Chicken Little” and thought she was dead.

 

Dave contacted Mark Cantor, an historian who gave Dave the films.  We all met at the nursing home and brought Alice the video to watch herself dancing.  It was the first time I saw the video, but more important, it was the first time Alice had seen herself on film.  Her reaction was amazing.  We put it on YouTube and it went viral in hours!  Alice was a star again!

 

People from around the world, including Beyoncé and President Obama, saw it and responded to it.  The Harlem Swing Dancers came to the nursing home and performed for her. Flowers and letters poured in.  It all touched her life so much. She would say, “They know me and they care about me”.

 

Sometimes when I would read her a card or letter you could see the tears of joy and she would tell me where to place each card and letter on her walls. She wanted to see every card every day.

 

She said, “There’s a reason for me to live to be 103 and this is it”.  So many people touched Alice’s life but the greatest thing of all is how Alice touched so many lives. People saw her beauty, grace, smile and passion and love for life and dance.

 

Alice touched my life, I miss her but she will remain in my heart forever. Alice’s words of wisdom were: “Live your life like the Beatles song, ‘Don’t worry about anything. Let it be’.”

Sincerely, Gail Campbell (Note to readers: Gail Campbell is the arts coordinator at a nursing home in Brooklyn.)

 

Pearl

Part III of III

When I look back it’s almost as if it was just yesterday that Pearl and I were just introduced as 10th-graders.  I remember first meeting him in the gym at our Physical Education class with neither of us knowing who was who.  However, I smile when I remember him doing something in the gym class on the basketball court and making a kid look clumsy even though he was a good athlete.  It was from that moment on I knew he was different, taller, stronger and carried a presence that no one else did.

 

When we officially met at tryouts and exchanged names I remember him being soft-spoken and guarded which is exactly the same way I was. However, on the court, his play was loud and spoke volumes.  One of the funniest moments was when he and I had to make the qualifying time on the track in order to be able to come in the gym and practice with the veteran players.  Those dudes were used to running on the track and being fit, I thought it was insane to have to do running on the track to play basketball.  Pearl would always finish next to last place trying to complete the quarter-mile under a minute, because I was always right behind him, sucking wind. Finally, Pearl decided to push to make the time and he did so rather easily, leaving me in the dust as the LONE person to not make the time.

Dwayne "Pearl" Washington
Dwayne “Pearl” Washington

I can still hear assistant coach Gene Carroll yelling, “Son, we don’t do asthma here,  we get rid of it”. I used asthma as an excuse to get out of excessive running in the past in JHS, but if I wanted to make the team I had to make the time. Consequently, Pearl and senior forward Larry Thompson kept encouraging me that I could make the time but I’m like, “Man, I’m just 13 years old, this is too intense”.  Safe to say, I made the time with their support but found the nearest garbage can and let all the asthma out.

 

Looking back, there’s just so many things from the phone calls to check in on each other while we were in college.  I certainly appreciated Dwayne’s calls because my first year of college was not as electrifying as yours in terms of playing time as you took the country by storm coming in as the #1 HS player dominating. While college ended up being great for each of us, those dynamite HS years of playing and growing together are moments I will relish.

 

We played against the top teams in the country from Camden, NJ, Trenton HS to Norfolk, VA and our own PSAL division was the toughest in the country hands down.  I loved going on the road and playing because I knew the gym would be packed with fans wanting to see “The Pearl” perform in person.  We beat everyone in our path much of our junior and senior year but each time it concluded with someone pulling a major upset on us.  Our final game together in HS was a defeat to the hands of Alexander Hamilton at St. John’s University, a team we had dominated throughout the season. Dwayne and I never won a city championship together but we built something that became legend, as perhaps the best backcourt in the history of Boys and Girls HS. I say this because we were always told this by veteran coaches throughout the city that have seen some of the best before us.

 

When thinking about us not winning the championship together I think about how coaching at The High provided me an opportunity to get one and we ended up winning 3 in a row and 1 State Championship.  The support Pearl gave me while coaching at The High was greatly appreciated and when he said the first championship win felt like he was totally apart of it.  I laugh because I remember being at Madison Square Garden in the locker room preparing and praying with the team before entering the court and my cell phone rung.  I looked at my phone and it was Pearl calling me, but I couldn’t answer because we were praying.  Pearl called me right back and I answered and he asked me to come get him and I said where are you? He answered at the players’ entrance.  I responded, “Dude, just tell them who you are and they will let you in, to no avail, they said no and I had to come get him”.  I remember looking at the PSAL staffer at the entrance asking do you know who this is and she said NO. I said OK and walked away with me shaking my head in disbelief. This place, Madison Square Garden, where Pearl changed lives giving excitement to thousands of fans in person and millions as TV viewers for 3 years like it was his own playground, would be denied access in the Garden.. Hilariously, as we are walking up the tunnel, a security worker yells out “Pearl, You’re Pearl”, I turn back and look at the PSAL staffer and smile!

Pearl changed the way people viewed college basketball, especially Big East Basketball.  People came to see Chris Mullin shoot that sweet jumper, Patrick Ewing to menace on defense but they all came to see “The Pearl” put on a show even if they weren’t cheering for him. They loved and acknowledged his legend in the making, he became must-see TV. He  helped Cable TV companies get bigger by gaining conference TV contracts.  With those contracts, Pearl basically helped put food on many family tables. TV stations now could hire more sports announcers.  These are the things that Pearl did without gaining the benefits.  That said, I know how much Pearl wanted to be on the Syracuse coaching staff from prior discussions.  I know how much it hurt him not to be given that opportunity, because he loved Syracuse, the fans and the community.  When Coach Boeheim commented at the going home service that there is no him without PEARL, he was correct, but so wrong for not giving Pearl the opportunity to be on his coaching staff.

 

Amazingly, Pearl remained humble and loyal to a fault but would never publicly say anything.  He had a brilliant mind for the game of basketball and truly could have been an asset to the Syracuse coaching staff.  Can you imagine him walking in to speak to a recruit and saying I’m Coach Dwayne Washington but everyone calls me PEARL.  No question that kid would immediately want to attend Syracuse, in fact, many players attended Syracuse because of you anyway. They appeared to hide behind a rule that assistant coaches must have a college degree to be full-time. I say rubbish because Pearl brought millions of dollars to that university via TV deals, concessions and General Admission.  If one takes a look at the rise of ticket prices from the time Pearl played at the Carrier Dome and prior, it’s safe to say everything went up because of him and  teammates, but do you know it was because of you PEARL that took everything to a next level.

 

So many people had incredible love for Pearl. I spoke to his son Dwayne Alonzo “DA” Washington, Jr. I told him at the funeral he must ensure your legacy and the great name bestowed on him and represent accordingly.  He must do all positive things necessary to nurture and build his own legend under “The Pearl” umbrella, which I truly believe he will.

 

As his friend and high school teammate, I’m thankful for his existence.  He touched  my personal history and heart by simply being a PEARL of A PERSON.  Teammates Forever! Go Kangaroos!

 

(Note to readers: Dwayne Pearl Washington, 52, the Brooklyn legend and Syracuse University star, died on April 20 after a months-long battle with brain cancer. Elmer Anderson is a coach at Boys & Girls H.S.)

 

 

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