Julius Pearse peers over his laptop, the faces of the “Emanuel Nine” filling the TV screen across his desk.
With the news account glaring off his round, wire-framed glasses, Pearse, of the African American Museum of Nassau County, arches forward and points at the screen, as if he’s touching the victims, consoling them.
“Why do we have to die?” he asks, his eyes trained on the dead.
The 82-year-old is overcome with mixed feelings. Hours earlier he discovered that South Carolina lawmakers had voted in favor of removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse—a flag first perched atop the building’s dome in the 1960s in protest of the civil rights movement and later moved to a flagpole on the statehouse grounds.
“It’s a good thing it’s coming down,” the soft-spoken Pearse acknowledges. “But I look at the price—that’s what bothers me.”
The tragedy that spurred South Carolina lawmakers into action came June 17 when a 21-year-old gunman allegedly sat alongside churchgoers inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during Bible study and proceeded to slaughter nine God-loving people who accepted him into their church as they practiced a coveted weekly ritual. The victims ranged in age from 26 to 87. The shooter’s alleged motivation was pure hatred and ignorance, according to reports. Nearly one month after the horrific massacre, lawmakers approved the flag’s transfer from the statehouse to a museum. Thousands gathered 23 days after the shooting to witness its removal.
But as the news of the vote began circulating overnight Wednesday and into Thursday morning, Pearse reflected on the victims of institutional racism—not only the “Emanuel Nine,” but thousands of others murdered since the Civil War, and the countless others marginalized and stigmatized for being born black.
Pearse remembers when the Confederate flag was first placed atop South Carolina’s statehouse dome. To this day, the sight of the flag invokes a visceral reaction, as well as long-held memories of instances in which he stood face-to-face with unabashed bigots: at restaurants in the South, a train station in Kentucky, an upscale eatery in Washington, D.C. But those heart-wrenching memories are also laced with inspirational stories of white friends staring down his detractors.
Pearse is an Army veteran.
He was stationed at Fort Myer, Va. in 1956 when he visited a restaurant with a white “fellow from Brooklyn” named Eckstein.
Pearse, then 21, and Eckstein sat down, and without hesitation they each ordered a hamburger and a coke—an All-American meal. The waitress, a white woman, reminded the soldiers of the restaurant’s rules.
“We don’t serve colored in here,” she said.
“Well, give me two hamburgers,” Eckstein replied.
The waitress returned with a pair of burgers and cokes and placed the meal in front of Eckstein, who pushed one of each toward Pearse.
“He’s with me,” Eckstein defiantly told the woman.
“That was one of the first times I really saw racism,” says Pearse, who was born and raised in North Carolina and rarely mingled with whites until he joined the service.
It wouldn’t be the last time.
Proudly outfitted from head-to-toe in his Class A uniform, Pfc. Julius Pearse disembarked from a military train during a pit stop in Indianapolis en route to Fort Knox, Ky. An army of soldiers, black and white, spilled out and sought to fill their bellies at a local eatery.
“All of us, black and white, go into the restaurant and wanted to get hamburgers,” Pearse says. “As soon as we get into this restaurant, the girl didn’t want to serve black soldiers. The white guys were shocked. They said, ‘What?!’”
Like Eckstein, the group of white soldiers purchased enough food to share with their black comrades.
The men were nearly out of the restaurant when one of the white soldiers lost his cool. He picked up a table and hurled it into the building’s glass windows, shattering them. It was about 10 p.m., Pearse remembers.
Around midnight the lights to the train awoke them. A sheriff was apparently inquiring about an incident at the restaurant. The soldiers feigned ignorance.
“My men have not left this train,” Pearse’s sergeant told the man, dismissively.
There was also the time when Pearse unknowingly walked into a white-only waiting room at a train station down South. A police officer approached and instructed him to move.
“Boy,” he said, “you’re in the wrong waiting room. There’s a room for you negros in the back.”
After his military career, Pearse joined the Freeport Police Department. He retired from the force a couple of decades ago.
He currently works at the African American Museum in Hempstead, which is said to be one of only two such cultural institutions in the entire Northeast. His wife Joysetta Pearse is the executive director.
During the course of several hours this reporter was at the museum, Pearse talked about the life of African Americans, slavery, and his own experiences with racism.
The news that afternoon was dominated by coverage of the Confederate flag’s removal in Charleston.
He’s familiar with arguments made by Southerners who see the flag as part of their heritage.
“It has nothing to do with the glorious contribution of Confederate soldiers,” he says. “There’s still some people that want to believe the Civil War was the war of Northern aggression and not human bondage. That’s what it was all about.”
Slavery, he said, was a business.
“It was about you taking away the basis of my economics,” Pearse explains.
He remembers when the flag was placed above the South Carolina statehouse more than a half-century ago.
There was “anger and disappointment that people can twist history around,” Pearse recalls.
There were moments that he thought about the United State’s Christian values.
“Yet,” he says, “in the same breath, history has proven that you can go to church on a Sunday” and later “attend a rally where the principal subject is a black man hanging from a tree. How can you say you are a Christian and participate in something as vicious as that?”
The alleged AME church shooter was purportedly driven by hate. He was seen in photos wearing South African apartheid-era patches on his clothes and holding a Confederate flag.
The battle flag, Pearse says, “is part of their heritage but it was a heritage that was wrong.
“You have to be taught, carefully taught to hate,” he adds. “You’ve got to have a justifiable reason why you hate this way. They were taught this.”
To Pearse, some Southerners defend the Confederate flag because it’s part of their identity. “They feel they are betraying their culture, their teachings,” he observes.
The flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse shortly after 10 a.m. Friday.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to happen,” Pearse says.