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Jeanne Parnell: Living a Life of Education and Entertainment

Jeanne Parnell with son, Richard Habersham, and grandson Richard Habersham III

By Fern Gillespie
The glam, sophisticated ladies of Harlem have recently been popularized on contemporary “girlfriend” television series like “Harlem” and “Run the World.” While the shows are fabulous fun, these successful young women are light years from the mature doyennes like Jeanne Parnell, who have “run the world” in Harlem for decades.

A couple of years ago, when Jeanne Parnell, a retired assistant principal, veteran radio personality, and Harlem socialite celebrated, her 85th birthday, Harlem’s ultimate “girlfriend group” gathered to help her celebrate the milestone. These were longtime friends who had smashed glass ceilings and created new cultural inroads.

Ladies like legendary TV anchor and reporter Melba Tolliver, iconic fashion show producer Audrey Schmaltz, renowned business leader Harriet Michel, veteran Broadway publicist and producer Irene Gandy, “Mama, I Want To Sing” creator Vy Higgensen, pioneering music publicist Barbara Harris, acclaimed Harlem cultural historian and fashion stylist Lana Turner, Jazzmobile, Inc. chief Robin Bell-Stevens, artist-photographer Coreen Simpson, creator of the original Black Cameo pin and Jean Wells, co-founder of Positive Community Magazine.

Like these ladies, Jeanne, now 87, is still working and creating. Although retired from the Board of Ed, her popular WCHR talk radio show is heard on Wednesdays from 8:00 am to 10:00 am from CCNY’s Harlem studios.

Jeanne, a longtime Harlemite, was born in Harlem. At age six, her parents moved to Brooklyn. “My father began to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and we got a two-bedroom apartment at the Fort Greene Projects,” Jeanne told Our Time Press. “In Harlem, I was sleeping in the dining room, but my mother made my new bedroom look like a princess lived there.”

Attending Brooklyn’s PS 67 and PS 254, she performed in school shows. By age 10, Jeanne’s mother enrolled her in popular the Mary Ruth Dance Studio in Harlem. She traveled from Brooklyn to Harlem to take tap dancing and acrobatics.

“I loved it. One day Bill Robinson asked for some kids to be in his show at the Apollo just for one day and I was one of the seven children that they chose, “ she recalled. “You would’ve thought that I was going to Hollywood!”

In the early 1950s, she auditioned for the High School of the Performing Arts.
“I was standing online and everyone who was taking the auditions was White. Then this Black kid came up to me and guess who he was? Arthur Mitchell.

I was in the ninth grade, and he was in the 10th grade. He said ‘I see you have silver shoes on. We don’t do tap dancing here. They only do ballet and modern.’

I said what’s that?” she laughed. But, the teachers liked her dancing and enthusiasm and she was admitted. In her sophomore year, the school gave her a scholarship to the Katherine Dunham School of Dance so she could learn ballet and modern.

“When I was in the High School of the Performing Arts, there were five Black people in the whole school,” she said. “I remember Diana Sands, who went to Broadway (in “Rasin in the Sun”) and Arthur Mitchell, who founded Dance Theatre of Harlem.”

Although she was accepted to Juilliard, Jeanne attended Howard University and majored in art. She studied with artist and art historian Dr. James A. Porter, renowned author of the 1943 book Modern Negro Art. “I became an artist. I can paint and I’ve given away a lot of my works,” she said. Jeanne graduated in 1958 and returned to New York City to teach.

Jeanne owned a dance studio in New Rochelle for almost seven years. “Because I was teaching school in New York City, at 3 o’clock I would jump in my car and ride up to New Rochelle. Ruby Dee had enrolled her children in the school. She got to know me she had me over for lunch and we became great friends,” said Jeanne. “She was so fabulous.”

In the 1960s, Jeanne married her second husband, Richard (Dickie) Habersham-Bey, a famed New York nightclub owner. She had known him since they were teenagers in Brooklyn.

Habersham-Bey owned 12 clubs during his career, including: the Blue Coronet in Fort Greene, Count Basie’s in Harlem, Dickie’s Monterey, The New World On Flatbush and The Uptown Lounge. He gave a stage to such greats as Miles Davis, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner and Thelonius Monk. “Jazz musicians from all over the world have played in his places.

Miles Davis used to sit up there with his grouchy self, but he was so much fun,” she laughed. “I was a party girl. I was educated, but I could hang out all night.”

Earning a scholarship to Columbia University Teaching College, Jeanne received a masters degree in education. At PS 31 in Manhattan, she was an assistant principal who taught a gifted class for kindergarten students. There was a waiting list, because her students would be skipped to the second grade.

“I would do the dance drama and the music,” she said “I would do the alphabet and numbers.” One of her students was Alicia Keys “She was smart. She could dance and sing and do math and writing,” she said. Jeanne became a close family friend and watched Alicia grow up and graduate high school. “She was ahead of her time.”


During the 1980s, Jeanne started her sideline career in entertainment broadcasting. She had radio shows on WWRL, WBLS and WLIB for many years. Entertainment and education were duo careers. In fact, Jeanne’s son Richard Parnell Habersham became a child star during this time. On Broadway, he originated the role of Reuben in the original production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone co-starring Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo.

In film, he played the kid Eddie in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Whoopi Goldberg’s teen son Theodore Cotter in the Civil Rights segregation drama The Long Walk Home. Today, Richard is president and founder of the Harlem nonprofit Solutions Now.

“I didn’t consider myself a stage mother,” said Jeanne. “I would drop Richard off and go to work at the school. I remember when I dropped Richard off over at Do the Right Thing set, Spike Lee said ‘You’re not staying? Who’s going to take care of him?’ I said ‘I got to go to work!”

At age 87, this former dancer can still glam it up in a mini skirt. “When I think about the life that that I’ve had like theatre mom, artist, teacher, principal, supervisor, owner of a studio, a dancer, it goes on and on,” she explained. “I believe life is for the living and we have to live it.”