Vera Mae Berry was born to sharecropper Wilder Berry and his wife, Lucy Wright Berry, near Glendora in Leflore County, Mississippi, on 2 September 1924. After her father left the family, Lucy Berry raised Vera and her brother, W. C., in Tutwiler, in Tallahatchie County. When Vera was just fourteen, she married Paul Pigee Jr., who was four years older, and their daughter, Mary Jane, was born the day before Vera Pigee’s sixteenth birthday. After studying cosmetology in Chicago, she opened Pigee’s Beauty Salon in Clarksdale.
Pigee worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was the only woman among the early local movement leaders. She helped to charter the group’s Coahoma County branch in 1953 before leaving the area to study cosmetology in Chicago. She returned to Clarksdale in 1955 and resumed her activism. She served as secretary of the Coahoma branch of the NAACP for about twenty years. When the NAACP’s Coahoma County Youth Council was chartered in 1959, she served as the group’s adviser, while her daughter served as president. In December 1961 the two women and a family friend staged a protest that resulted in the desegregation of Clarksdale’s bus terminal. Pigee became a surrogate mother to many young activists, feeding them and providing them shelter in her home and salon. She also helped to organize the area’s citizenship schools and taught classes to prepare African Americans to register to vote. Because she was self-employed, she had relative economic immunity against retaliation for her organizing efforts in the Delta, although her home suffered a bombing and she was arrested regularly. Pigee exhibited extraordinary bravery, which she credited to the example provided by her mother, who, driven by religious faith, refused to allow segregation to dictate how she was treated. Pigee helped to establish the Council of Federated Organizations but became one of its first critics, clashing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers who continuously berated NAACP officials.
Pigee left Clarksdale in the early 1970s to study sociology and journalism, earning a doctorate from Wayne State University in Detroit. After movement history in Mississippi rendered Pigee and her loyalty to the NAACP invisible, she wrote and published a two-part autobiography, Struggle of Struggles, during the 1970s. She continued her activism with the NAACP in Michigan and became an ordained Baptist minister, residing in Detroit until her death on 18 September 2007.
- Patricia Hill Collins, in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (1994)
- Françoise N. Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (2012)
- Françoise N. Hamlin, in Mississippi Women, Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)
- Stanlie M. James, in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, ed. Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia (1993)
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
- Nancy Naples, Gender and Society (September 1992)