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Campbell, Bertha Pitts (1889-1990)

HistoryLink.org Essay 28 : Printer-Friendly Format

Bertha Pitts Campbell, an early Seattle civil rights worker, was a founder of the Christian Friends for Racial Equality and an early board member of the Seattle Urban League. She was also one of 22 young women at Howard University in 1913 who founded the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, one of the largest African American sororities.

Born in Winfield, Kansas, she was reared in Montrose, Colorado. Although she received a scholarship to college in Colorado, she chose to attend the all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C. She entered the school in 1909, and graduated in 1913, the year her sorority was founded and the year she marched with the suffragettes down the streets of the nation's capital.

She taught in Topeka, Kansas, for a year and then returned to Howard to assist in the women's dormitory. Returning to Colorado, she met and married Earl Campbell.

The couple moved to Seattle in 1923 when Earl Campbell found employment at the Immigration Station there. That year, Campbell was instrumental in forming the Alpha Omicron chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in Seattle.

As a wife and mother of one son, Campbell still found time to volunteer in the community, helping to organize the Seattle Urban League in the early 1930s and serving on its first board. She worked with the Phillis Wheatley branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) on 21st Street before the present East Cherry Branch was established. In 1936, she became the first black woman ever to exercise the right to vote on the local YWCA board and served four terms as chairperson of the East Cherry Branch.

Campbell observed many discriminatory practices in Seattle. Black women could not eat in Frederick and Nelson's Tea Room, nor could they try on gloves in the department store. Many cemeteries, roller-skating rinks, restaurants, and swimming pools discriminated against blacks. And, with World War II beginning, black people arriving in the city had difficulty finding homes.

A member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Campbell fought to bring about change through Christian human service efforts. In 1942, she and a group of women from the Council of Churches formed the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, an organization dedicated to change through persuasion, based on Christian principles.

The organization worked to ensure that physicians did not refuse service to black people in hospitals, and to roll back discriminatory practices elsewhere. For example, Campbell's organization conducted a housing survey in the University District, listing the number of places willing to rent to black people. In 1949, 38 places were available but only 6 would rent to people of color.

The Christian Friends for Racial Equality continued to work to expand housing and other opportunities for blacks until 1965, when the civil rights movement was in full swing. Then, with many other groups working in the field, the organization disbanded.

At age 92, Campbell led 10,000 members of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority in a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the participation of the organization in the suffrage march of 1913.

The Washington State House of Representatives honored Campbell for her life and work on May 11, 1987, and she stood in the gallery to accept the honor. In turn, Seattle proclaimed June 13, 1987, as Bertha Pitts Campbell Day.

On her 100th birthday, she was feted at her retirement home and received praise and visits from friends and political leaders from the city, county, and state. The King County Council declared it to be Bertha Pitts Campbell Day throughout the county.

Bertha Pitts Campbell died on April 2, 1990. Members of her sorority from around the nation came to her funeral to express their high regard for her life.

Delta Sorority Founder, Bertha Pitts Campbell Dies at Age 100," The Facts, April 11, 1980; Don Williamson, "Bertha Campbell, 4th Level of Power," The Seattle Times, April 6, 1990; George Foster, "Bertha Pitts Campbell, Civil Rights Leader Dies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 1990.

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Related Topics: Black Americans | Biographies | Women's History | Organizations |

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Bertha Pitts Campbell (1889-1990), ca. 1975
Courtesy The Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc. (1997.17.2)

Gravestone of Bertha Pitts Campbell, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle, June 2003
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long

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