Pistol Packin’ Pearl

This story was originally featured on our podcast series, Dime Stories.

Today, we’re highlighting the life and work of “Pistol Packin’” Pearl Carter Pace. Born in 1896 in Thompkinsville, Kentucky, Pearl was the daughter of a circuit judge. She grew up in Thompkinsville, eventually attending Western Kentucky State Normal School in 1917 and becoming a public school teacher. That same year, she married and moved to Burkesville. By 1924, Pearl had transitioned to a business career, working her way up from bookkeeper to President of three family-owned businesses: the Cumberland Construction Company, Monroe-Cumberland Crushed Stone Company, and Cumberland Crushed Stone Company. She also served as Managing Agent for the Ashland Oil Company.

Pearl Carter Pace. Courtesy WKU Department of Library Special Collections.

In 1938, Pearl was the first Kentucky woman elected to a four-year term as sheriff, in Cumberland County, during which she gained the nickname “Pistol Packin’ Pearl.” Her time as sheriff saw a crackdown on rum-running and organized crime, following in the footsteps of her husband, Stanley Dan Pace, who had previously served as sheriff. Two years into her term, Stanley died in a tragic car accident, leaving Pearl a working single mother to their three children.

When Pearl’s term as sheriff was over, she decided to continue a career in politics, aligning with the Republican party. Initially serving on Republican committees, Pearl also served as chairman of the Civil Works Administration (later called the Works Progress Administration) in Cumberland County, on the Advisory Committee of the Kentucky Republican Women’s Club, and as a board member of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1952, she became a huge supporter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later appointed her to the War Claims Commission (later called the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission). She was later promoted to chairman of the committee, becoming the second-highest ranking woman in Eisenhower’s administration and the first Kentucky woman appointed by a president to a national post.

Nameplate, "Pearl Carter Pace, Commissioner"
Pearl Carter Pace Commissioner nameplate. Faux woodgrain card stock inset with white letters. Catalog number 2001.17.46

Her work on the commission included handling claims of Americans (especially recently-immigrated Americans) who had lost property during and after World War II (including losses due to Communist takeovers). What I find most inspiring is that, in looking at Pearl’s own court testimonies, she continually fought against inequities. In April 1960, Pearl fought for the rights of Czechoslovakians who had inherited property in Czechoslovakia before or during the war, but were not American citizens when they inherited. An amendment to the International Claims Settlement Act proposed by the U.S. government would have limited the claims to only those who were American citizens when their property was inherited. Instead, Pearl thought that claims should be open to anyone who was now an American citizen, whose property had been inherited at any point during the war and subsequent Communist takeovers.

In her statement to the Committee of Foreign Relations regarding the claims of nearly 4,000 Czechoslovakian Americans, Pearl stated that the amendment “would in my opinion do a grave injustice to a great number of American claimants who under the present statue are now eligible. Moreover, if enacted, the bill would deprive a considerable number of U.S. citizens of rights already granted to them by the Congress…”

Pearl’s testimony was among those that swayed the Commission to oppose the amendment. In their final position letter, the Commission echoed Pearl’s words, stating that the proposed legislation would “subdivide the qualified groups of claimants who possessed citizenship at the time of their loss and create a distinction between those who recently acquired U.S. citizenship and those who have held it for a longer time; i.e. it would create a class of second class citizens.” Effectively, the committee agreed with Pearl that imposing restrictions on who qualified as a citizen in order to receive compensation was inequitable, thus upholding the rights of new American citizens.

Pearl continued her political activism after Eisenhower’s term ended, serving the Republican party and eventually as Kentucky’s Republican national committeewoman. Her work is preserved in WKU’s Department of Special Collections and select artifacts at the Kentucky Museum. As told by Lynn Niedermeier, “These materials provide a close-up view of the scramble to reserve accommodation and transportation to the inaugural events, create lists of invitees, arrange seating, and secure admission to the most-coveted Washington functions.  As Republican National Committee chairwoman for Kentucky at the time of Eisenhower’s first inauguration, Pace obtained tickets for a Middlesborough constituent, who responded with elation at the prospect of attending this historic event.  “It was the most wonderful Christmas gift a Kentucky woman could have been afforded,” she declared, and hoped that on the appointed day she would be near enough “to see our great President take his solemn oath of office.””

Pearl retired in 1962, and died eight years later.

Remembering Pistol Packin’ Pearl is an integral part of understanding Kentucky women’s journey to achieve political equality. Pearl paved the way not only for women – but also women of color – to serve high-ranking offices in their counties and on the national stage. Her story is a testament to the strength of women in the early and mid-20th century, and their efforts to pave the way for future generations. It is also a fulfillment of Pearl’s own philosophy on life, which stated “Anybody can do anything he wants if he just wants enough to make the effort.”

Today, Pearl’s personal papers – including files from her childhood to death and political memorabilia from her political career – are held by the Kentucky Museum and the Department of Library Special Collections at WKU. Items of note include correspondence with her son who served during World War II, her Commissioner nameplate, political buttons and ribbons from her various memberships, and a scrapbook she compiled to document the 1952 Republican National Convention, all of which are part of the jointly held Rather-Westerman Political Collection, named for two WKU alumni who collected memorabilia for the collection: Lexington attorney Julius Rather and Louisville businessman Robert Westerman. These materials are often used by WKU students in the courses, with a recent example being the Fall 2018 “Women and Politics” class led by Dr. Victoria Gordon, during which students used the collection for their individual research assignments on female politicians.

Click here to explore artifacts related to Pearl Carter Pace in our collection. Want to help preserve her legacy? Make a gift of $20 to adopt an artifact from Pace’s collection. Available artifacts include:

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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