Yesterday was a huge day in the history of our nation. How I wish one former Montrose High School graduate could have witnessed this event. Her name was Bertha Pitts Campbell who was quoted as saying, “Expect the unexpected.” I just know as a young child walking the streets of Montrose with her grandmother, an ex-slave who had no education herself, Bertha would never have expected what just took place.
Bertha was born June 30, 1889 in Winfield, Kansas to Ida and Hubbard Pitts. The family moved to Montrose where they lived with her grandmother, Eliza Butler, at 509 S Second Street. Bertha helped her grandmother deliver freshly laundered and ironed clothing to the Montrose elite, listening to her constant expulsions on the importance of a good education.
Taking her grandmother’s advice seriously, Bertha became the first black to graduate from MHS with the class of 1908, holding the distinguished honor of delivering the valedictory address at the Opera House ceremony. Bertha earned a full four-year scholarship to Colorado College, but turned it down, preferring to be a part of a black community. She chose to attend Howard University in Washington D.C., receiving financial support from the Congregational Church. In June, 1913, she graduated cum laude from Howard earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in education.
In January, 1913, Bertha and 21 of her fellow students who wanted to use their collective strength to promote academic excellence and to provide assistance to persons in need, founded the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Bertha put it this way: “We had broader views. We wanted to reach out to the community. We wanted to be more than just a social group. We wanted to do more when we graduated for the community in which we were going.”
Bertha spent the rest of her life living up to this commitment. The first public act of the newly formed sorority was to participate in the Women’s Suffrage March in Washington D. C. in March, 1913. In 1981, at the age of 92, Bertha led 10,000 members of her sorority down Pennsylvania Avenue to commemorate that first march. Although a limo had been arranged for her, she refused the ride, insisting on walking the entire way.
Following graduation from college, Bertha taught school in Kansas before returning to Colorado. In 1918 she married Earl Allen Campbell, a railroad worker and they had one son, Earl, Jr. Following WW I, the couple thought opportunities could be better in Seattle, Washington, so moved there in 1923. Eventually Earl went to work at the U.S. Immigration station where he worked until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1954. Earl, Jr., also died in the 1950’s.
Bertha commented on the Great Depression, saying, “The commissaries were the food banks run in the different neighborhoods…the people didn’t want the authorities running the food banks…so they ran the food stores themselves.”
According to Bertha, “There were a lot of poor people who had no place to stay. Built their own homes down in the location of the railroad yards. It was full of little shacks down there that they called Hooverville.”
She said, “The war (WW II) began to bring in new people. We formed the organization called Christian Friends for Racial Equality…And our purpose was to seek to apply the golden Rule, to stand for the Equality of opportunity for all men of all races. To exercise all rights and privileges guaranteed by the constitution and by the Bill of Rights. We protested by all peaceful means the denial of these rights and privileges and strived to develop a public conscience against racial and religious discrimination. This was an interracial group…from then on we worked on discrimination in restaurants, hotels, Red Cross, theaters, housing projects and urging that discrimination be abolished.”
On Feb. 21 of this year, The Seattle Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta will host the fourth Biennial Trajectory to Excellence, which is an event that helps to ensure that poor students or students of color are not deprived of higher education and training due to lack of economic means. Proceeds from the event will go toward scholarships provided through the Bertha Pitts Campbell Scholarship Fund.
A book has been written about “our” Bertha, entitled “Too Young to be Old” by Pauline S. Hill, herself a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which now boasts more than 250,000 women members.