Pam Grier overcame violence and racism to become an early African American action hero in films.
Pamela Suzette Grier was born May 26, 1949 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Gwendolyn and Clarence Grier. Within days, Pam was riding in the back of a car with her parents on their return to Colorado. Pam’s father served in the Air Force, so the family moved around a lot when she was young. Some of her earliest memories involved experiencing discrimination in Columbus, Ohio.
Pam remembers buses refusing to stop for her and her mother, and her mother explaining to her that it was because they were Black. Pam’s father was biracial and often passed for white. When the officers at the Ohio Air Force base first met her father, they at first offered the family nice housing, however, when they discovered his family was African American, the offices withdrew the housing offer. Pam wrote that events like this broke her father’s spirit, although he liked being in the Air Force and always had hope for a better day.
One of the most important things in her childhood was spending time at the home of her grandparents (Raymundo and Marguerite Parrilla) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. While they did not have an indoor toilet or electricity, Pam loved learning to fish and raise vegetables away from the city. She also got to know her Native American Uncle, Daniel, who lived to be 107. By the time she was 6 years old, she was living in Denver most of the time, and started school in North Denver. Unfortunately, the same year that she started school, she was violently attacked by three older boys. The experience left her very shy and caused her to stutter when she spoke. After that, she would often hide in the closet when people came to visit her home.
After experiencing such violence, her time at the farm house in Wyoming became even more important to her. On one of these visits, she asked her Uncle Daniel if she could ride the old horse that lived in the barn. He said it would be dangerous because the horse’s job was to pull a cart and it was not used to having people ride it. Pam waited until Daniel left and then climbed up onto the fence next to the horse. The horse was gentle and let her climb on, and then walked her across the nearby fields. Eventually the horse took a nap and she fell asleep on his back. When Uncle Daniel found them and woke her up, she told him about her adventure with the horse and didn't stutter once. This was the beginning of her lifelong love of animals.
The Air Force sent the Grier family to England for a couple of years, but in 1958 they returned to Denver. Pam’s mother worked as a nurse and was able to buy the family a home at 3555 Eudora Street in North Park Hill. Her father continued to have to travel with the Air Force, but Pam and her siblings were now able to stay in one place for longer periods of time. When Pam was 13, her parents divorced and her aunt Mennon and three cousins moved in with Pam, her mother, and her siblings. They all worked together to keep the house clean, tend to the garden, and learned how to repair things that her dad would have fixed before the divorce.
As a teenager, Pam’s mother tried to enroll her in a music academy and in horse riding lessons. The schools offering these lessons both refused her, possibly due to her race, but her mother found an older German woman named Mrs. Heinemann, who offered to give her piano lessons. Pam ended up joining East High School’s Echoes of Youth Gospel Choir newly founded by Mr. and Mrs. Ryan. The group was very popular and they were even invited to perform in churches out in California. Through her time with this group, Pam had found a great love in performing and in music. Three of the boys who performed with her in the choir went on to found the famous R&B group Earth, Wind, and Fire.
By 1968, Pam finished high school at East High in Denver. Over the years of her schooling, she had gone from a shy girl with a stutter, to a contestant in the Miss Colorado Universe competition (in which she competed to help pay her way through Metropolitan State College of Denver). David Baumgarten, a talent agent, saw her at the Miss Colorado Universe competition and signed her on to the Agency for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where she would eventually work in the office while taking acting classes.
Grier was soon discovered by film producer Roger Corman and was flown off to the Philippines to film an action movie. At the time, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted her to marry him and settle down, but she was determined to continue her career as an actress. Throughout the 1970s, she grew into an action star of what became known as “Black Exploitation,” or “Blaxploitation” films. In many ways, the films promoted stereotypes of African American communities and culture, but at the same time these were some of the first films to have African American heroes. It was also rare for any type of film at that time to have a female lead, but as her career progressed, Pam had become a well-known action hero. Pam Grier continues acting to this day, but has also pursued other interests such as helping her sister Gina and brother Rod to open an ethnic design shop on Santa Fe Drive in Denver.
Even with her successful career, Pam continued to love the city she saw as home. In 1998, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb declared October 13th “Pam Grier Day” in celebration of her success. Pam worked to give back to the community she called home and, in 1999, she helped organize a celebrity art auction at the Denver Central Library to benefit young mothers and babies needing medical care. The same year, she helped to open Shaka’s Place, a community center where kids could learn technology skills. After reading an article about kids in Arvada going without school lunch, she donated money to pay for lunches, and helped spread the word about children being denied food. In 2013, Pam worked with Project Angel Heart to help provide food to people living with AIDS.
As much as she showed concern for the human community, Pam’s love of animals remained at the center of her life. For decades, she has lived on the outskirts near Denver, to be closer to nature in the country. She has nursed rescued horses back to health at her home, and even used her own truck and trailer as part of Douglas County’s wildfire season horse rescue unit. Pam continues to raise hay to feed hungry horses in need, always remembering that a horse once helped her in her time of greatest need.
Discrimination - unfair treatment of a group of people by another group of people
Stutter - to repeat sounds at the beginnings of words and to have trouble ending certain words
Talent Agent - Someone who seeks out people with skills in order to represent them in professions like acting and music
Stereotypes - often inaccurate views of a certain group of people held by another group of people
Why do you think animals were able to help Pam deal with her childhood trauma? Do you like animals and why?
What do you think made Pam successful as a woman of color in Hollywood in the 1970s?
Do you have an interest in arts and music? What kind of skills would you like to develop?
Contemporary Black biography. Volume 31
Foxy : a life in three acts / by Pam Grier with Andrea Cagan
Pam Grier Clipping File (Available Upon Request)