In the late 1960s, Pearl Graham, affectionately known OutEast as “Mother Pearl,” was an 18-year old fleeing an abusive home. Her heart was set on moving to Atlanta, Georgia, but her spirit led her to East Jacksonville.
“I was a little fearful because I didn’t know anybody in Jacksonville except a few distant relatives,” said Pearl. “So when I came here I was homeless for a month.”
Her only skills were related to sharecropping, like picking cotton and shaking peanuts, but it was a white business owner, Mr. Padgett, who gave Pearl a job at Spot Rite Cleaners on Jacksonville’s Eastside during a time when race relations were still tense.
“He was the daddy I never had,” she said. “He saw so much in me. He taught me so much about life. I worked for him for 45 years. Never missed a day. Never was late.”
Mr. Padgett promised he would leave the store to Pearl when he retired. After he suffered a stroke, his wife made sure that promise was kept. The couple financed the business for Pearl, and she paid them back over the course of five years. But the day she finished repaying the loan, she was presented a new challenge.
The building that housed Spot Rite Cleaners went up for auction.
Despite being discouraged by an adversary who told her she was too poor to win the auction, Pearl decided to take a chance and compete with the few bids already on the table. As luck would have it, her adversary, who also wanted the building, suffered a heart attack the Friday before the auction. The man sent in replacement failed to show because of a flat tire.
As for the bidding war, once the potential winning buyer learned Pearl was only interested in the property because of her business, he had a change of heart.
“He sent his secretary to tell me to go up $1, and he wouldn’t bid against me anymore, and that’s what I did.”
Pearl attributes her success to faith and divine intervention. She fondly recalls déjà vu stepping off the bus in East Jacksonville for the first time. She recognized the strip she now owns from a vision she had around age 13.
After 54 years OutEast, there’s no place she’d rather be. “It’s beautiful people out here,” said Pearl. “Being a poor girl, coming to the Eastside, I can’t say nothing but thank God for the Eastside and the people out here. Had it not been for the Eastside and the people out here, I wouldn’t have the gained the success I have.”
The respect and admiration for Pearl and her servant spirit is evident. New business owners from OutEast speak of prayers she’s prayed over their endeavors. Business owners on her strip thank her for giving them a chance to create a legacy for their families and give back to their community.
She takes pride in being the first entrepreneur in her family and setting an example for not only her loved ones but everyone she meets. She noted the number of homeless people who could be entrepreneurs if only they had the help and the resources like her.
She believes entrepreneurs have a responsibility to uplift others and use everything they’ve been blessed with to be a blessing to others.
“It means everything to me that I can see the product of my labor,” said Pearl. “It makes me feel good to know that I have deposited something positive in somebody to change their lives.”
Her only wish is that more people would see what she sees OutEast and invest in the development of the historic neighborhood, which was once a vibrant thoroughfare for Black families before many businesses were destroyed in a 1969 race riot.
“It’s good people out here. Really good people. And there are some people out here in a rut and can’t get out. And all they need sometimes is a little help.”
You can support businesses like Spot Rite Cleaners and the Eastside community by participating in United Way of Northeast Florida’s second-annual Root & Rebuild, a series of community events, conversations and volunteer opportunities to help celebrate the historic roots OutEast and make important steps in rebuilding Northeast Florida’s legacy. To learn more and view our calendar of events, visit unitedwaynefl.org/rootandrebuild.