By Maria Morales
At 110 years old, Pearl Bassett was the oldest living member of the NAACP. Ms. Pearl, as she was affectionately called, joined the NAACP in 1930 after witnessing a lynching in her hometown of Marion, Indiana.
Known for her sharp wit and show-stopping hats, Ms. Pearl, who celebrated her 110th birthday on April 28, still attended unit meetings, and as a member of the National Life Membership Committee, she regularly made calls to sign up new "lifers" for lifetime memberships.
Ms. Pearl died on June 7 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
But five months before her death, Ms. Pearl participated in the NAACP's Founders Day Life Membership Drive, which lasted from January 1 through February 18. She helped secure five of the 220 new, renewed or upgraded life memberships during the membership drive. The drive brought in more than 500 new members overall.
"She didn't know the meaning of the word 'No,''' Ophelia Averitt said of Ms. Pearl.
Averitt is a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and chair of the National Life Membership Committee.
Ms. Pearl was a shining example and inspiration to her colleagues on the National Life Membership Committee. Following in her footsteps, many committee members worked to get five or more life memberships during the Founders Day drive. They include: Derrick Forward, James Garman, Edward DuBose, Cora Breckenridge, Marian Fifi Locke, Joselyn Whittaker, Akosua Ali, Kenneth Huston, Alice Huffman and Hector McDaniel. New York State Conference President Dr. Hazel Dukes and NAACP Chairman Leon Russell also participated in the Founders Day drive.
Lifers not only encouraged regular members to upgrade their memberships to the life member tier, but they also reached out to those lifers who were behind on their dues and encouraged them to become current.
"Memberships are the lifeblood of this organization," Averitt said. "That's how we've survived 112 years. The more memberships we have, the stronger this organization gets."
Averitt learned this lesson early in life. The Demopolis, Alabama, native says her mother bought her an NAACP membership when she was only 3 years old. Her mother was an educator who advocated for Black farmers and worked religiously for the NAACP, Averitt said.
"It was like a mission for her," Averitt said of her mother. "She always stressed that unless you helped someone, your living is in vain."
When her parents moved the family to Akron, Ohio, they remained involved in the NAACP, primarily by getting others to join the organization.
Averitt has held several leadership positions at the unit and state level, always focused on cultivating memberships. She was appointed to the national membership committee by the late NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. In their last conversation before his death in 2015, Averitt said she and Chairman Bond discussed the importance of memberships.
"He said, 'Don't stop. I'm just calling as a reminder to say keep on keeping on,'" Averitt recalled. "I didn't know that he would be leaving us so soon."
Averitt has taken Chairman Bond's final words of encouragement to heart. She made business cards with her contact information on the front and the NAACP's mission on the back. She exchanges cards on the plane, in church, at civic meetings and community events.
During the membership drive, she signed up 13 new members during an installation ceremony for new officers of the Stark County NAACP in Canton, Ohio.
"I always ask for their card, and I always follow up," Averitt said.
Averitt advises units that once you sign up a new member, give the person a receipt and keep in touch.
Follow-up is critical to sustaining the organization's presence and self-sufficiency, Averitt said. Membership dues provide much-needed revenue to enable the NAACP to carry out its mission. More than $76,000 were raised during this year's Founders Day drive.
Several lifers across the country brought in tens of thousands of dollars during the two-month lifetime membership campaign, which challenged each life member to enroll five new life members. There is no age limit for life membership. Averitt enrolled five babies into junior life memberships, which are for members ages 0-13.
She pointed out that Ms. Pearl sold memberships using an old school tool: the phone.
"If Ms. Pearl could do it," Averitt said, "anybody can do it. Every member can get someone to join the NAACP."