by Tim Gilmore, 8/27/2023
In robes of purple, the prophetess who’d named herself for the disciple falsely believed to have been a former prostitute walked the streets of Grand Park and New Springfield and Phoenix and LaVilla and Oakland and the Eastside, healing with the spirit those she encountered in need.
For “in my name,” saith the Lord in The Book of Mark, “shall they cast out devils. And they shall speak with new tongues.”
To those who said Mollie “Mary Magdalene” Peartree had taken no formal vows to become a nun, she replied that it was by God’s orders that she wore the habit of the nun and robes of the purple of royalty, majesty and high officialdom, of the rarity of purple in nature and the great expense of purple dye.
For The Book of Proverbs said, “She maketh herself coverings of tapestry and her clothing is silk and purple.”
And The Book of Acts spoke of “a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple,” whose “heart the Lord opened.”
And Christ himself, approaching his Crucifixion, the soldiers clothed mockingly in purple robes and “platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head.”
And who now would know Mollie Peartree ever had entered these dozens of small churches the size of the woodframe houses tight on either side that dot the landscape of all these neighborhoods that slide one into another and comprise whole world histories within and between them if it weren’t for Pearl Randolph and Zora Neale Hurston?
Pearl and Zora, two Black women headquartered at the Clara White Mission in the midst of dense, segregated and largely Black LaVilla at the heart of Jacksonville, worked together for the Federal Writers’ Project, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a program that not only provided writers and artists jobs in the midst of the Great Depression, but appointed them to the important cultural work of documenting and recording the folklore, arts and customs of poor populations both rural and urban and the formerly enslaved.
Hurston, unremembered at the time of her death in 1960, was one of the great Black writers of the early 20th century. Hurston was complicated. Her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road casts aspersions on early Civil Rights activists. Her 1935 Mules and Men and ’38 Tell My Horse chronicle her folkloric expeditions, including zombie accounts. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God portrays the life of Black citizens of Hurston’s hometown, Eatonville, one of the few places where Black people could run their own lives and govern their own community in the United States. Moving to Jacksonville, as a teenager, she later wrote, “made me know that I was a little colored girl.”
Pearl Randolph and Zora Neale Hurston wrote about Mollie Peartree and Wilhelmina Kaiser, two Black women each considered by herself and others a prophetess, each of whom wore robes, who knew the streets of Jacksonville like that earlier dark-skinned man, Jesus Christ, knew the streets of Nazareth. Peartree and Kaiser, in the slightest of details, populate the “Interesting Characters” of Randolph’s and Hurston’s 26 page 1936 booklet Negro Folk Customs and Folk Lore.
Both Peartree and Kaiser were born somewhere in Georgia, exact whereabouts unknown, exact date unknown. One census record says Peartree was born “about 1871,” though another says “about 1877.” The sole Jacksonville census record naming Kaiser says she was born “about 1864.”
For decades Mollie Peartree lived at the northwest corner of West 25th Street and Pullman Avenue. City directories list her as homeowner, a laundress, and her husband George as a laborer, and occasionally as renter. The 1930 census names a brother, Joe Wilson, about four years younger, living with her; the ’35 census names a 20 year old son named Jimmie.
While almost no records of Kaiser exist, Peartree had her portrait taken by E.L. Weems, a Black photographer with a studio on Beaver Street in LaVilla who chronicled Black life in Jacksonville from 1929 to 1979. While Weems made his way through the community photographing weddings and funerals and baseball games and graduations, his studio portraits designated status. Stamped on the back of the only surviving photo of Mollie Peartree is “Weems Photo Studio 512 W. Ashley Street.”
George Peartree died in 1943, about 80 years old, and Mollie died the following year. Everyone knew Mollie Peartree when they saw her. They welcomed her hands upon their sick and hurting bodies, her healing hands upon their heads for the pain and persecution in the skull.
God had assigned her the purple robes, she said, and God had assigned her new name, by which the people knew her, Mary Magdalene, for the woman she and most other Protestants falsely believed to have been a former prostitute, who washed Christ’s feet with her tears and with her hair.