African Americans have made great contributions to American society throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In Buncombe County and beyond, Edward Walter (E.W.) Pearson, Sr. was one such person.
Pearson was born January 25, 1872 in Burke County, NC. He and his two siblings grew up working on the family’s farm with their parents, Cindy and Joseph Pearson. At the age of 20, imbued with an adventurous spirit, Edward decided to strike out on his own.
He heard there was good money to be earned, so he ventured to the coal-mining town of Jellico, TN. The work in the mines was extremely dangerous and backbreaking however, Pearson worked. Each day he assured himself that he could do more, and it was up to him to take advantage of every opportunity that came his way.
The following year Pearson enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to Troop “B” of the Ninth Calvary Division—the “Buffalo Soldiers,” with whom he served two terms of duty. Decorated and honorably discharged in 1893, he moved to Chicago, IL, and enrolled in the Chicago School of Law, where he studied law, insurance, religion, real estate, and merchandising, while also receiving special training as an organizer in the Fraternal Masonic Field.
Pearson moved to Asheville in 1906 armed with the skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur. He opened an office in the Campbell Building, on the corner of Eagle and Market Streets in the area known as the Block. From his office he organized the Mountain City Mutual Life Insurance Company, ran a mail order business, (the Piedmont Shoe Company). Pearson also sold real estate while working with R.P. Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States. Hayes, a landholder of properties along the Haywood Road corridor in West Asheville, was briefly an Asheville resident.
Under Hayes’s tutelage, Pearson began to purchase and develop land in West Asheville. He offered lots to African Americans who were eager to become property owners. Pearson’s property in West Asheville was named Park View, and included land he designated as Pearson Park. In keeping with his business experience, Pearson opened a Grocery & Confectionary Store in Park View for the African American residents of West Asheville.
In 1914, Pearson organized the first Buncombe County District Colored Agricultural Fair. The fair brought many black residents from across WNC and upstate South Carolina to enjoy amusement rides, games, and to compete for cash prizes in categories from baked goods to flower arranging.
His legendary slogan for the fair was, “Plant early, dig it now. Plant and hoe, make that garden grow. Plant it, work it, day and night; so when winter snow is falling you will be sure to eat right!” Pearson’s District Colored Fair was held annually for 33 years.
Pearson was also a fan of baseball, but when he learned that he was not permitted to attend whites-only baseball games in the segregated South, in 1916 he organized the first Semi-Professional African American Baseball team in Asheville.
The team played in Pearson Park against African American teams from surrounding cities and states. In 1921 he established, and became president of, the Blue Ridge Colored Baseball League, comprising teams from Charlotte, Gastonia, Concord, and Winston-Salem, NC, and Rock Hill, Spartanburg, and Anderson, SC.
In addition to his business and sports activities, Pearson was also a dedicated civic leader. He organized North Carolina’s first NAACP chapter, chartered in Asheville on September 11, 1933, as well as such fraternal groups as the Grand Order of the Calantians of North Carolina. He was a member of the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pythias, and served as Grand Master of the Masons. He also served as Deputy General Manager-Western District of the American Federation of Masons and the Order of Eastern Star.
E.W. Pearson worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for many African Americans and his family. He left behind a legacy of aspiration, achievements, and a strong lesson for those who came after: Even in a strictly segregated society, he saw no obstacles—only opportunities.