by Dominique Claire Shuminova
Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Association presented a talk by longtime New Rochelle resident and community leader Hon. Pearl Quarles entitled, "A Life Well Lived” at the Thomas Paine Cottage on Sunday, February 5th at 3pm, in observance of Black History Month.
“I was born in a very rural town in Richmond County, Virginia,” her story began. “It was very country, but the best place in the world that anyone could be from, and the reason is that everyone in our community truly cared about each other.”
A prominent local businesswoman, Hon. Pearl Quarles is known as “a woman of many firsts”, the first African-American woman to serve as Westchester County Legislator, the first African-American to serve as president of the New Rochelle Board of Education, and the first female chair of the board of trustees of Shiloh Baptist Church in New Rochelle. She has also been active in many other local organizations including United Hebrew of New Rochelle, The New Rochelle League of Women Voters, NAACP, Sister to Sister International, and the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus.
“The house that I lived in was built by my mother's cousin with the help of my mother,” she recounted, “and this was a little woman, much shorter than me, but she could do anything. And I guess that's where I got some of the gusto, from the fact that I was brought up in a home where women had to do certain things because sometimes the husbands were working through the week. My father worked for the saw mill, and he worked for the railroad. In those days, you would have men going away on Monday morning and coming back Friday night, so that meant that the wife had to assume certain duties that city ladies would never have assumed. You had to make sure there was wood to put on the fire.”
The Thomas Paine Cottage, built in 1793 on the south side of Paine Lane in New Rochelle – now called Paine Avenue – was the home from 1802 to 1806 to English-born Thomas Paine, “Father of the American Revolution,” and author of the seminal Common Sense. The 300-acre farm was given to Paine by a grateful State of New York in 1784, in recognition of his services in the cause of American Independence.
“If I have done anything that is positive in my life it's because I had my mother's example,” continued Quarles. “The outreach that you may see me do in the community now is because I saw that. My mother was the only woman that drove a car in our area. So, she would throw us in the back of the car and off we would go to shop for food with somebody, or to the doctor's.”
Paine's impassioned objections to slavery lead to his exclusion from the young nation's inner circles of power. His obituary in New York Evening Post from June 10th 1809 read in part, “He had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” Only six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were freedmen.
“I grew up in a segregated South where I walked three and a half miles to school every day,” Quarles related. “There was quite a difference between what was given to the students of color in terms of services. The children who were not of color were driven in a bus to their school. We had to walk. One of the most harrowing times of my life was one day when they threw out garbage on us when we were walking. So, the next day, my brother got the ashes out of the wood burning stove and put them in a bag, and as we were going home the school bus came by – same school bus that had thrown out garbage all over us – my brother had a good arm, he threw that bag in and that bag just sort of exploded with ashes in that bus. Needless-to-say we had to run! We ran through the woods. I worried for months that we were going to be caught and jailed!”
She went on to echo the sentiment expressed in the famous words of Thomas Paine, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
“In spite of it, I wouldn't give my life in Virginia for anything, because it made me and my family stronger than we would have been had it been handed to us on a silver platter. My mother taught us that you work hard for everything you receive, and if it's easy, you won't enjoy it as much. Many times people would tell you, if you came from the South you're gonna have to be put back in class. That's not true. It depends on where you come from. We were more than prepared. I graduated valedictorian of my elementary school. I always tried to be good because I didn't want to be switched. And I came to New Rochelle and took the test at the Huguenot School – that was the old school on Huguenot Street – and all my friends all summer said, “you're gonna be put back” but I aced that test.”
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Thomas Paine
The Thomas Paine Cottage has been owned by New Rochelle and Huguenot Historical Association and operated as a museum since 1910. The building was restored in 2009, thanks to individual donations and a $50,000 grant obtained by State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin. Help support the museum by becoming a member or by volunteering at the cottage.