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Black History Month

Daisy Lampkin was a dynamo for change

Monday, February 02, 1998

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Daisy Lampkin had a way about her that charmed politicians and emboldened the browbeaten.

A fund-raiser extraordinaire -- be it for Liberty Bonds or memberships in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- she could fly into a city, give several speeches with her oratorical flair and get even the most parsimonious to donate.

She was field secretary and board member of the NAACP, twice an alternate at-large delegate to the national Republican convention, a suffragette, a leader of civil rights campaigns for African-Americans, vice president of the Pittsburgh Courier and on the board of directors of such groups as the Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Council of Churches.

Considered by some to be one of the great American women of the 20th century, Lampkin had a life and made contributions that have been all but forgotten in her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, where she lived from 1909 until her death in 1965 at the age of about 82.

Her presence -- physically she was a large woman fond of large hats -- and her personality influenced the main currents in Pittsburgh's black community from the time she held her first women's rights tea in 1912 to support women getting the right to vote.

"She gave her total life to a cause, the cause of the elevation of black people, primarily, and the elevation of women," said Edna B. McKenzie, an emeritus professor of history at Community College of Allegheny County who has written extensively about Lampkin and is at work on a biography.

"To be in control of two of the greatest organizations for first-class citizenship -- the Pittsburgh Courier and the NAACP -- the men really depended upon her. I doubt seriously if they could have done it without Daisy Lampkin. She raised the money and she recruited the people. I'm not just talking about Pittsburgh; I'm talking nationally."

A chapter in a new book by Carnegie Mellon University history Professor Joe Trotter traces Lampkin's influence in such events as the election of Robert H. Logan to Pittsburgh City Council in 1919 and Homer S. Brown to the state Legislature in 1934, the organization of the first Red Cross chapter among black women, the development of the local chapters of the Urban League and NAACP, the national March on Washington Movement in 1941 and the growth of the Pittsburgh Courier in midcentury into the most widely circulated black newspaper in the world.

In 1931 she single-handedly arranged for the NAACP's national convention to be held in Pittsburgh. McKenzie said Lampkin told NAACP national officers that Pittsburgh would be host to the convention, and then wrote a letter to executive director Walter White telling him to keep the news quiet until she had had a chance to get home and discuss arrangements.

"She believed leaders should lead," McKenzie said.

But there was a less publicized side to Lampkin, a softness, a side that liked to make ice cream from freshly fallen snow on a windowsill and play on the carpet with her adopted grandson. She put that aspect of her personality to great use, telling a young Baltimore, lawyer by the name of Thurgood Marshall in 1938: "Darling, it's about time you . . . moved to New York (headquarters of the NAACP) to work where you are most needed."

In 1954 Marshall, as an attorney for the NAACP, argued the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to open public schools to children of all races. He later became a justice on the high court.

She persuaded a young teacher named K. Leroy Irvis to move to Pittsburgh to work for the Urban League, even providing him the third-floor apartment of her building at 2519 Webster Ave. in the Hill District. Irvis, who as a 12-year-old had first met Lampkin in Albany, N.Y., later became the longest-serving speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

"I always called her 'Aunt Daisy,' " said Irvis, who is retired but serves as an honors professor at both the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University. "I worked for her (at the Pittsburgh Courier) when I couldn't get a job after coming out of law school.

"If she had any vulnerability, I never saw it. She could be soft when it was needed or she could be hard and commanding when she needed to be. She was the one person who could tell me to sit down and shut up and I would sit down and shut up."

Lampkin believed strongly in family. She was raised as an only child and she and her husband, William, were childless. So when Romaine Childs was born and her parents asked the Lampkins to be their daughter's godmother, they accepted. Mrs. Childs died 11 months later, and Lampkin essentially adopted Romaine. When Romaine and her husband Earl's son, Earl Douglas, was born, Lampkin became his grandmother.

"No matter what she had to do, she always had time for him," said Romaine Childs, now 74 and living in Squirrel Hill. "Her desk was a playground for him. He'd go in and mess it up."

Earl Douglas Childs laughed remembering that.

"That was my big claim to fame during the civil rights movement," he said. "Who knows what I messed up that she then had to redo?"

Lampkin was the only grandmother that Childs, now 41 and a Point Breeze dentist in private practice, ever knew. She called him "Little Earl" and would insist on bringing him to social functions, telling hosts, "I'm not coming if my grandson's not coming."

Lampkin, who suffered from hypertension and arthritis in her later years, didn't let it keep her from playing with Little Earl.

"I'd ask her to get down on the floor and play with me, which she would do," he said. "But she couldn't get back up again because she had arthritis in her knees. It would take two or three people to help her stand.

"I don't think there was ever a cross word. It was the gentle guidance. If I did something wrong, she would correct it. The punishment factor was certainly ameliorated because grandma was there."

She was tireless. She once conducted 40 NAACP chapter meetings in a month. Romaine Childs remembers Lampkin coming home from a full day of work and then going back out to a meeting. Or the Sundays when she'd address several church meetings. Or the phone calls.

"They'd call and say, 'Daisy, we need you,' " Romaine said. " 'We've got some boys in jail. We need to raise some funds.' She couldn't stay in a hotel (because of segregation) but she'd pack her bags in the middle of the night or day and go raise funds for the NAACP. And that was her life."

She was born Daisy Elizabeth Adams in Washington, D.C., in either 1883 or 1884. She spent most of her youth in Reading before moving to Pittsburgh in 1909. She married Lampkin, a restaurateur from Rome, Ga., in 1912. McKenzie said Lampkin "placed organization at the top of her list of prerequisites for race progress," possibly explaining why she always strove for leadership positions.

Her first organization effort involved consumer protests by housewives. In 1915 she became the third president of the Negro Women's Equal Franchise Federation, which later became the Lucy Stone Civic League, a group she led for 40 years. Under her direction, Allegheny County's black community raised more than $2 million in Liberty Bonds during World War I.

After the war, she won a subscription contest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Courier. When the paper couldn't pay its promised cash award, she became a stockholder. She increased her holdings over the years until being named vice president of the corporation in 1929, a position she held for the rest of her life. She not only wrote stories but became a prominent feature in the paper for her local and national fund-raising efforts. She once observed that "Our male leadership is so busy with their private interests that nothing is done unless the women do it."

When a group of black leaders met with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in 1924, she was the only woman among them.

The 12 years she spent as field secretary for the NAACP featured unprecedented membership and fund-raising drives. After she sent $10,000 to NAACP headquarters from a 1943 campaign in Detroit, she received a letter from Thurgood Marshall that said the staff was "shouting for glory . . . and wondering what we would do without you."

She continued conducting successful membership drives. It was at one such drive in Camden, N.J., in October 1964 that she suffered a stroke. Earl Douglas Childs recalled the day.

"I remember her saying that she didn't feel well," he said. "I ran to her saying, 'Grandma, don't go. Stay home so I can take care of you.' She said she had to go because she had to do some important things."

Lampkin died March 10, 1965. Eighteen years later, a Pennsylvania historical marker was unveiled in front of her Webster Avenue apartment building, the first such plaque to honor an African-American in Pittsburgh. Last year she was awarded the "Spirit of King" award, annually given by the Port Authority, the Kingsley Association and the Pittsburgh Pirates to recognize achievements of local citizens in the pursuit of human rights and equality in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"When you find a person who's completely dedicated to a cause," McKenzie said, "there's a charisma there. She moved well in all circles. There's no question that she was accepted everywhere as a leader."

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