Pearl Primus

On November 29th, 1919, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, a baby girl was born to Edward and Emily Primus; they would name her Pearl Eileen.  In 1921, the Primus family immigrated to the United States, in hope of attaining opportunities to advance their life.  Settling in New York City, the Primus family continued to hold values and traditions true to their Trinidadian heritage.  According to the biography of Pearl Primus at The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Pearl “and her two brothers were shielded from many of the societal ills prevalent in American culture.  In the home, the Primus children were taught racial tolerance and ethnic pride through the inculcation of educational, religious and cultural values.”

Reared in the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Pearl excelled in academics and athletics at P.S. 94, P.S. 96 and Hunter High School.  From an early age, her intellectual and performance gifts shined.  After graduating from a program for the academically gifted at her high school, Primus remained in New York City.  She enrolled at Hunter College, where she studied biology and pre-medical sciences.  She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 1941, as well as her Master of Science degree in Psychology in 1943 from Hunter College.  Primus would, ultimately, earn her doctorate in anthropology, focusing on African and Caribbean culture, from New York University in 1978.  The university allowed her to perform, via dance, her dissertation. 

Upon graduating in 1941, Pearl Primus sought positions, such as a medical researcher, that would lead to an advanced career in medicine.  She intended to enter medical school at Howard University, a historically Black academic institution of higher learning in Washington D.C.  However, due to racial discrimination, she was unable to secure any work, not even as a laboratory technician, in her academic field.  In order to support herself, she accepted numerous positions, such as a welder and a switchboard operator.

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