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On August 13, 1927, Morrison W. and Ada L. Blackwell welcomed the third of their ten children—a daughter they lovingly named Pearl May. Like the gem after which she was named, for ninety-six years, Pearl lived a life that symbolized God’s love and grace until bright early on the morning of Sunday, August 20, 2023, she danced onto the wing of an angel and flew away!
The Early Years
The Blackwells were a close-knit, church-going family. Pearl joined Bethel Baptist Church on March 2, 1939 and was baptized along with her father, older sister Christine, and maternal Aunt Rosa by the late Reverend L.W. Gray, on Easter Sunday, March 24, 1940. A life-long member of Bethel, she was involved in the Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU), worked in the Sunday School and served as a Brownie and Girl Scout leader. She also served as an usher from 1943 until 1987 and for many years worked with the Sons of Bethel serving Thanksgiving dinners.
Educated in the public schools of Cincinnati, Pearl attended Frederick Douglass Elementary School and proudly graduated from Woodward High School in 1945. Inspired by a desire to “help her family”, soon after graduation, she went to work in the cafeteria at the University of Cincinnati. It wasn’t long before the lovely, graceful Pearl met her soul mate, John Edward Lewis, “Johnny” as she lovingly called him. Married on October 18, 1946, they were together for sixty-two years. Their union was blessed with a son Jerome, who she lovingly referred to as the “#1 Son”. A devoted wife and doting mother, she was their queen.
In the early years, the family made their home on Grantwood Avenue in Evanston. Although they moved from there over fifty years ago, Pearl is fondly remembered as one of the neighborhood’s “favorite parents.” In 1970, they moved to Forest Park, Ohio where John and Pearl distinguished themselves in their new community. Active members of the Section F Neighborhood Association, they were always willing to lend their time and talent for the betterment of the community. They had a shared passion for gardening and were the “perennial” winners of the “Yard Beautification Contest”. Year after year, nestled among the beautiful flowers in their perfectly manicured yard was a new Beautification Award banner. Even today, thanks to her “#1 Son”, the 2023 Marigold Beautification Award and 2023 Beautification Award banners sit in Pearl’s yard.
The Humble Servant
Always a hard worker, Pearl believed in service. From 1962-1964, she worked for Bendix Company. In 1965, she joined Avon Product as the second African-American hired as a Machine Operator-Tour Hostess. Committed to excellence in all she did, Pearl distinguished herself at Avon. Her high impact, energetic tour presentations earned high praise from Avon’s visitors and leadership. In 1983, she and John were awarded an all-expense paid trip to New York City. Upon her retirement in 1985, she was recognized for twenty years of perfect attendance.
In 1984, Pearl joined the Order of the Eastern Star. She proudly served as Worthy Matron and later Past Worthy Matron of the Pride of the Valley, Chapter No. 71 OES and Past Grand Marshal in the East Amaranth Grand Chapter, OES State of Ohio. In 2006, after her husband joined, she became a member of the Greater Cincinnati Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Committed to doing her civic duty, Pearl was also involved with the local Democratic Party. She served as a poll worker for twenty-three years and presiding election judge for ten.
As hard as she worked, Pearl also liked to enjoy herself. She enjoyed life and found joy in the simplest things. In their day, John and she could “cut a rug”. In the 1990s, she began line-dancing at the Evanston Community Center and later the Woodlawn Community Center. She stopped participating when her husband had a near-fatal accident. Knowing that she missed the classes, in 2005, John encouraged her to start a class at Forest Park’s new Senior Citizen’s Center. The first class had five seniors. Their numbers soon grew to 70-100 “Forest Park Steppers” attending the weekly line dancing class. They danced at nursing homes and other senior centers, the “Forest Park National Night Out”, and Winton Woods Middle School. This vibrant group of seniors didn’t just dance. They served the community. Annually, they collected school supplies, toys, boots, and gloves for needy children. They helped send the Winton Woods High School Choir to China and collected several hundred pairs of socks for the homeless through the non-profit agency Hannah’s Socks. When not dancing and serving in the community, she enjoyed coloring, crocheting, latch-hooking, and making beautiful ceramic crafts.
During her life, Pearl received many well-deserved honors for her service. In 2009, the Cincinnati Recreation Committee honored her work with the Forest Park Senior Center at the 42nd Senior Citizen Hall of Fame Banquet and Awards Ceremony and in 2013, the Cincinnati Chapter of Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc., honored her “Service to Senior Citizens” at their Annual Five Star Community Sweetheart Gala.
For all that Pearl did and all she accomplished, perhaps, her most treasured assignment was being “Na Na” to her grandson, Jerome II. His birth brought her joy unspeakable. He was her heart, and she was his.
Pearl was preceded in death by her beloved husband John, grandson Jerome II, granddaughter LaTonya Terry and siblings, Christine, Morris, Ruth, Dorothy, Kenneth, and Norma.
She leaves to celebrate her life and treasure precious memories: her devoted son, Jerome (Deborah) Lewis; two brothers, Stephen P. Blackwell, Sr., and Marvin (Daphanie) Blackwell; one sister, Gladys Dodson; one brother-in-law, Roland (Margo) Lewis; three grandchildren, Babette Johnson, Shantell Ryans and Danté (Tamisha) Turner; eight great-grandchildren; six great-great-grandchildren; and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.
With a heart full of love, compassion, and generosity, Pearl was the embodiment of the proverbial writer’s “virtuous woman” and Maya Angelou’s “phenomenal woman”. From her warm heart to her beautiful smile, she left an indelible impression on all she met. Living by the mantra, “Life is a journey. Live it to the fullest”, she wrote:
“I do not know how long I’ll live, but while I live, Lord let me give…”
I do not know how long I’ll live, but while I live, Lord let me give
some comfort to someone in need by a smile or nod, kind word or
deed. And let me do whatever I can to ease things for my fellow man.
I want…but to do my part. To change folks’ frowns to smiles again.
Then I will not have lived in vain and I’ll not care how long I’ll live;
I can give and give and give.”