Thousands celebrate Little Black Pearl’s 25th anniversary

With Mayor Lori Lightfoot beside her, Monica Haslip tells the crowd at Little Black Pearl’s 25th anniversary: “I know with every fiber of my being that these young people have the capacity to take us to the next level.” (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

Twenty-five years ago, Monica Haslip started Little Black Pearl in her basement, dreaming of teaching African American youth not only about the arts, but how to make a living in the arts.

Today, Little Black Pearl operates its 40,000-square-foot Art and Design Academy at 1060 E. 47th St., an option high school affiliated with Chicago Public Schools. It has music, glassblowing and multimedia studios. Academy and after-school program students learn 2D and 3D art practices, dance, music production and the latest technology in the field.

On Saturday, Aug. 24, thousands came to the 39th Street Beach to celebrate Little Black Pearl’s quarter-century with Pearl Fest. Spoken word poets performed. R&B singer-songwriter AverySunshine, jazz singer Lizz Wright and soul elder stateswoman Nona Hendryx performed. Musicians played violins and keyboards. Two DJs tag-teamed. Alumni rapped.

Mayor Lightfoot arrived with First Lady Amy Eshleman and had a beer; Haslip addressed her on stage.

“Although we know that things are happening in our city with our young people, the reality is, these are extraordinary people,” she said. “These young people are ready; they are incredible; they have demonstrated [this] for 25 years. I have done this for 25 years because they have made me a believer. I know with every fiber in my spirit that these young people have the capacity to take us to the next level.”

Haslip asked the crowd to get on its feet “and give a hand to all the young people of Chicago that we love and that we will continue to support.

“We will make sure as adults in this city that we are the example of possibilities for them,” she said. “I am so honored that every single one of you came out to celebrate with us.”

In an interview, Haslip said Pearl Fest has been ongoing for around 15 years, though the party to mark silver anniversary was its first occurrence in 4 years. She said the 25th anniversary will be incorporated as a theme in many of Little Black Pearl’s exhibitions and events in the year ahead.

“I’ve served probably 10,000 children over 25 years,” Haslip said. A trained artist who did marketing for Black Entertainment Television, she was moved to combine the two things she loved the most — art and marketing — to arouse entrepreneurial instincts among South Side youth.

“The foundation of our work is about teaching young people the connection between art and business,” she said. “We find and develop relationships with other corporate partners like the [Michael] Jordan brand and Mini Cooper who actually create opportunities for our kids to design and create art for them.”

Haslip said she saw some of the school’s graduates working with the companies hired to set up the stage and sound. As she named Pia Johnson an alumna of note, Johnson serendipitously appeared.

After participating in Little Black Pearl’s after-school programs from 1999 to 2005, Johnson got a degree from the Parsons School of Design in New York and a master’s degree in arts administration from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now she makes a living as an art dealer, selling works by Chicago artists Hebru Brantley, Shani Crowe and Max Sansing to an international market.

“My whole life’s trajectory is based on things I learned here at Little Black Pearl — which is art and business and how to fuse them into one,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have known this idea that it’s a safe space to be in the art world, because we always think starving artists. But that’s not a real thing. I don’t have to starve because I want to sell art, or you don’t have to starve as an artist.”

Herald freelancer Marc Monaghan contributed.