Pearl Carina Bowden Anderson, African-American civic leader and renowned philanthropist, was born on August 18, 1898, in Winn Parish, Louisiana, to Nettie Bowden (1867–1953), a mulatto midwife, and a white physician father with the surname Thibodeaux. During her early childhood Anderson was raised by her maternal grandmother, Nellie Stringer. The girl grew up on a small farm in Louisiana where she worked chopping cotton and pulling peanuts in the fields. As a child she had limited access to education so young Pearl taught herself to read and write by copying letters in the dusty ground between her chores. When she was twelve, a school was built by the Rosenwald Foundation, which she later credited as inspiring her philanthropy towards education.
After considering following her mother’s profession as a midwife, Pearl enrolled at Gibsland College for one year and then briefly taught school in Louisiana and Arkansas. Anderson moved to Texas in hopes of gaining more opportunity as a black woman than she would have been afforded in Louisiana. Alone at the age of twenty-one, she packed up everything she owned and moved to Dallas in 1919. Armed with a small sum of money she had saved, she purchased a lot in South Dallas and found a lumberyard owner who agreed to loan her the lumber she needed to build a grocery store. The store was located on Dildock Street and was immediately successful. Within four years she paid off the store. Several years later she rented it, sold the stock, and went to work in an icehouse. Pearl’s light-complexioned skin allowed her to pass for white, and the white icehouse owner told the other workers she was his cousin. She became ill soon after taking the job, and local doctor John Wesley Anderson nursed her back to health. The physician was a prominent and wealthy figure in Dallas’s African-American community. Although he was more than twenty years her senior, the two married on October 10, 1929. They had one child, a daughter who died in childhood.
J. W. Anderson had a home built on Jackson Street, downtown near his doctor’s office, and he had the stone shipped in from Kansas City for the job. Later, the home site was torn down and a parking lot for the Mercantile National Bank was constructed in its place. John Wesley Anderson died on May 30, 1947, and Pearl often said that her years with him were the happiest of her life. After her husband’s death, Pearl Anderson was left with many lucrative properties, including real estate downtown and a small farm called “Casita del Campo” north of town.
Inspired by her grandmother and mother’s generosity as midwives and her early experience with education and race relations, Pearl C. Anderson dedicated the rest of her life to helping all others in need, without regard for race. She was reborn as a philanthropist in her own right after the death of her renowned husband and went on to donate large sums of money to local, state, and national philanthropic organizations. She became very involved in the Dallas African-American community. In 1950 she was named chairman of a “bombings” committee by the NAACP Dallas branch to help arrest and convict those responsible for bombing several black homes. Well-respected in the community across the racial line, Anderson was among several prospective candidates suggested as an African-American member to be on the Dallas Board of Education; 93,000 African Americans petitioned to have a black member named to the board in 1954. The appointment did not go through, but the request is evidence of her popularity. The year 1955 was a landmark year regarding her legendary Dallas philanthropy when she donated more than $200,000 worth of downtown property to the Dallas Community Chest Trust Fund for charitable use. This included four two-story buildings, a small parking lot, and two garages. The property was to be used for those in need, preferably released inmates, wayward children, or adults. Her contribution triggered an overwhelming response, with both the Texas Senate and House of Representatives passing resolutions of tribute. The income from the Community Chest property went to Pearl Anderson during her lifetime, after which it became part of the Pearl C. Anderson fund in the Community Chest Trust. One result of Pearl’s generous gift was the establishment in Garland of the Pearl C. Anderson Day Nursery, which offered day care for preschool children from two to four years of age. Due to her Community Chest gift, the United States Information Agency decided to send her story throughout the world to combat Communist propaganda “in telling the story of America to the rest of the world and showing how our policies advance the interests of all freedom-loving peoples.”
In addition to her sizable financial contributions to Dallas, Pearl also gave her time and energy to many organizations servicing those in need. During the 1950s she was a member of the board of the Council of Social Agencies, a member of the board of Maria Morgan YWCA Branch for Negroes, and a life member of the women’s auxiliary of Goodwill Industries. Additionally, in 1956 Anderson was named Woman of the Year by the Kappa Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, and she was presented a community service award by the South Dallas Business and Professional Women’s Club. Later that same year, Bishop College in Marshall set up the Pearl C. Anderson Award given annually to an exemplary student in civic and religious activities. Anderson was on the committee to bring Bishop College to Dallas. Due to her outstanding work on behalf of Bishop College, she received an honorary doctor of law degree from the school in 1958.
By the dawn of the 1960s, Pearl C. Anderson was in no way slowing down from her civic duties. She was appointed to the Governor’s Committee for the 1961 White House Conference on Aging and donated a twenty-foot Red Cross mobile canteen to the Dallas County chapter of the American Red Cross. She received a special honor in 1961 when a junior high school was planned bearing her name—the Pearl C. Anderson Junior High School in South Dallas. “It’s rare for the board to honor a person who is still living,” school board president R. L. Dillard, Jr., explained, “But Mrs. Anderson has been a great benefactor to Dallas and we feel it most fitting to be accorded this tribute in her lifetime.” The school (later known as Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center) opened for classes in the spring of 1963.
In 1962 Anderson received the National Achievement Award, the highest honor conferred by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club. By this point, Anderson funded two scholarships at Bishop College, one at North Texas State University, and one at Southern Methodist University. She was also involved in the establishment of the Hexter Memorial Lighthouse for the Blind and served as the president for five years. She was honored by the institution for her services in 1963. Anderson also served as secretary of the Dallas Council of Social Agencies.
She was appointed to the National Leadership Advisory Council of the National Committee for Children and Youth in Washington, D.C., in 1966. A champion of youth causes, she helped raise funds and donated money to the Dallas County Youth Study and in 1960 was a delegate to the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Anderson served in leadership positions in the YWCA and YMCA. A Catholic, she was a member of St. Anthony’s Church and a past president of the Legion of Mary.
For the NAACP’s birthday party in 1968, Pearl C. Anderson and other civic leaders were honored for their contributions to humanity and the community. The following year, she served on the patron committee for the Dallas County appreciation dinner for Senator Ralph Yarborough. Citizens National Bank in Dallas named her Worthy Woman for January 1971, and that same year she was chosen as one of the Titche’s Arete awardees—an honor given annually to Dallas women who have excelled in professional and civic service. Anderson served on the board of trustees for Bishop College, on the directorship board of the Dallas Metropolitan United Fund, and as a member of the Dallas Day Nursery Association, Catholic Charities Board, American Red Cross, and SERV (Special Effort to Recruit Volunteers). In July 1971 she became the first woman ever named an honorary lifetime member of the board of directors of the American Red Cross.
In 1972 Bishop Thomas Tschoepe of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas honored her. He stated, “When they named her Pearl they named her well for she is a jewel.” When the first Annual Texas Conference on the Status of Black Women was held at Bishop College in 1976, Pearl was made honorary chairwoman for the event. In 1977 Anderson was honored at both the National Council of Negro Women (Dallas section) and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Reflecting upon serving the citizens of Dallas and a life devoted to the service of others, Pearl C. Anderson commented, “Helping people becomes a habit and a very satisfying one. Giving of one’s self can be a very rewarding way of life….” She passed away in Dallas on April 25, 1990. Her funeral Mass was held at Cathedral of Guadalupe Church.