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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

The Pearsall Women: Gertrude & Marjorie

For at least two centuries, African Americans have been an integral part of the greater Roslyn community. Despite being constrained by prejudice and racial discrimination, Roslyn’s Black residents contributed in major ways to the area's economic and civic life. This included young Black women such as those from The Pearsall Family, a well-known African American family in Roslyn.


The youngest Pearsall sibling, E. Arrell Pearsall, wrote a compelling autobiography that was donated to The Local History Collection over a period of several years. In addition to the entire story of his life, Arrell discussed the lives of his seven older siblings, some of whom lived to a formidable age while others died tragically in their 20s. Two of his sisters, Gertrude and Marjorie, each succumbed to tuberculosis within a few years of each other at the ages of 28 and 24 respectively. Before their untimely departure, this middle pair of the six Pearsall sisters managed to live remarkable lives and instill virtues in their younger brother that he carried with him throughout his life.


Arrell wrote the following about Gertrude:

Gertrude was the next Pearsall child. She was born in 1893. I believe she was born in the first house on Landing Road just behind the Hennessy home which was on the corner of Skillman Street and Landing Road. She graduated from Roslyn High about 1910.


Gertrude took a position at the Bronxville Orphanage school in Bronxville, New York. After a few years, she got a position as governess for a rich family by the name of Breck who lived in Garden City and Maine. She had complete charge of their three children, Manley, the boy and oldest child, Sidney and Susan. Every now and then they might ask their parents could they do this or that; and the response would be “What did Gertrude say?” Quite often Gertrude would have me over to spend the day playing with the children and having lunch with them.



When she was around home she saw that we kids were dressed warmly before going out. She would buy us school supplies, encouraged us to study and write stories or poetry. She was quite an artist.

In the Spring they would go up to Maine for the Summer. This home was called a cottage but it was an enormous house. When Manley outgrew his 24” wheel bike, they gave it to Gertrude for me.


Gertrude did many things to better her life, the family’s or help other people. Any clothing she bought had to be washed or dry cleaned before she wore them. She washed and ironed money. When she was around home she saw that we kids were dressed warmly before going out. She would buy us school supplies, encouraged us to study and write stories or poetry. She was quite an artist. On her day off, if there was anyone she knew was sick, she would visit them. I know two people that had tuberculosis that she visited several times.


...Gertrude had caught a cold and went to a doctor for a check-up. They found she had tuberculosis. She was advised to go to Denver, Colorado. The only thing to do in those days was to go to a high dry country, eat eggs and drink a lot of milk. The thing was...who was going to take care of Gertrude in Denver? My sister, Marjorie who was working in the general Post Office in New York volunteered to go with Gertrude. So, my father sent them off to Denver. They were there about a year and on April 20th, 1921 Gertrude died at the age of 28. I was 12 years old at that time and I am sure I would have finished high school if Gertrude had lived. I often wondered what vocation I would have ended up in. Gertrude was one of my favorite sisters.


Of his sister Marjorie, Arrell wrote the following:

Marjorie was born in 1898 in the same house as Gertrude...on Landing Road behind the Hennessy homestead. She finished her education through eighth grade in the colored school. She then went to the white school and graduated in 1916. Marjorie had such a wonderful, friendly and happy disposition, everybody loved her. She loved me most of all. I remember when even after I was walking, she loved to put me in the carriage and push me around Landing Road and Skillman Street.


I remember one day when I was in the colored school and she in high school, she hurried around to meet me at lunch time. We used to cut through Conklin, Tubby and Conklin Lumberyard because that was a shorter way home. She would meet me and walk me around through the village and past the high school to show off her little brother. I remember one Sunday she was wheeling me down Landing Road when she found a belt. We had just passed Louise Hennessey, her cousin and another girl. They had taken a walk down to the town dock. Marjorie turned me around and hurried to catch the three girls. One of them had lost the belt and didn't know it.


Marjorie gave me the nickname of “Feacher”. I don't know why or what it meant. She made up this little song she sang to me often. “Marjorie loves a Feacher...and Feacher loves a Marjorie.” She had a beautiful singing voice.


After graduating, she worked at Oscar Seaman's Motel. In the meantime, she had taken a test for the Postal Service. She passed and went to work in New York City.


When Gertrude was told she had tuberculosis and was advised to go to Denver, Colorado, our father said he would send her, but someone should go with her. Our father was hard working and a saver. He did many odd jobs on the side and was able to have a savings account while raising eight children. Being the loving and caring person Marjorie was, she volunteered to go...giving up her future and eventually her life for the love for her sister. After being in Denver about a year Gertrude died, April 20th, 1921. Marjorie accompanied Gertrude's body on the train from Denver. After the funeral, my father decided with Marjorie being home, it was time to move into our own home on Power House Road near Willis Avenue.


In the meantime, Marjorie was examined and found to have contracted tuberculosis and was advised to go to Asheville, North Carolina. We had a family doctor friend there who would look out for Marjorie and the house where she stayed, the lady took care of her. That July we moved into our own home and the following April 1st, 1922, Marjorie succumbed to the dreaded disease. I missed her very much. She was only 24.


Though written over 70 years after their deaths, the wistful sadness of Arrell’s narrative is as mournful as if they had recently occurred. He dearly loved the sisters he describes, and his stories about Marjorie are particularly bittersweet. As recounted in these passages, both Gertrude and Marjorie each worked in and around Roslyn as well as the further locations of Garden City, Bronxville, and Manhattan. Despite the brevity of their lives, they left a lasting influence on those who knew and loved them. By sharing the stories told by their now-deceased brother, Arrell, the memory of their existence continues on nearly 100 years into the future.


Look out for the continuation of this series on the Pearsall women and the significance of their presence in the Roslyn community.

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