Campbell, Bertha Pitts: An Oral History

  • By Edited by Stacy Carlson
  • Posted 3/19/2000
  • Essay 2427

Bertha Pitts Campbell (1889-1990), 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. This is an excerpt of an oral history interview of Bertha Pitts Campbell done by Esther Mumford on April 23, 1975 as part of the Washington State Oral History Project. Born in Winfield, Kansas, in 1889, Bertha Pitts Campbell grew up in Colorado. She graduated from Howard University in 1913, began teaching, and married Earl Allen Campbell. Earl and Bertha moved to Seattle in 1923.

Excerpts From the Interview

"We left Colorado because the War was over. And we thought that conditions would be better out here, for work, my husband was a railroad man, but he decided that he’d like to change to something else. So we came to Seattle looking for work. Work was seemingly plentiful … He did different types of jobs for awhile until he could get something permanent. And after about four years, he was able to get in government service and he went to work at the Immigration station. And worked there until 1954 … when he died of a heart attack.

Black in Seattle, 1920s

"We lived on the Southside, south of Jackson. On about 28th Avenue. And then we moved from that site to 25th Avenue ... which was north of Jackson, and we bought the house. I think at the time it cost $2500. It was a five room bungalow, and not in bad shape. Wasn’t exactly what we wanted but, we could fix it up, make it what we wanted. And we lived in that from about 1925 until 1956. And then I went to live with a friend for a few years, until about 1962 when I sold my home, and moved into an apartment house.

"[In the 1920s] there were only about 2500 to 3,000 Negroes in the whole town. So of course there wasn’t much of a … there weren’t enough to make that much of a … much of an impression. That is, their political strength, their voting strength, would not have been very much. When I first came here, there was no Urban League. There was no organization like that, see. So there was really nothing. All those things came later. I did find the YW [YWCA] was organized, but as a branch …. It was the colored branch … in the colored neighborhood. Over on 21st Avenue, 21st and Madison.

"[In the 1920s] all the neighborhoods had little neighborhood movies. You don’t see a neighborhood movie anymore, very seldom. But we had movies over on Jackson. There was a movie house up on East Cherry. People went nights ... and they went to the concerts or whatever shows happened to come into town.


"The Opera House was open to [black people], they sat anywhere … but you couldn’t always eat anywhere. There weren’t any signs, but there were places that refused to serve and several times they had suits, they brought a suit for, you know for not being served or something. Sometime they settled but that still didn’t settle the thing. And not really until World War II, when World War II began you couldn’t eat in Frederick Nelson’s Tea Room. And before that Frederick Nelson wouldn’t try gloves on me. I’ve tried clothes on everywhere. But, and then that was kind of stupid too, a glove isn’t any more personal than a dress, doesn’t seem to me.

"We didn’t have outright discrimination, but several suggestions of it. Like for instance offering to give the Negroes a beach of their own. But we said “No, we don’t need a beach with all the beaches that are around in our neighborhoods we don’t need a special beach. We’d like to be able to go to any beach we take a notion to go to.” So that died out and we didn’t have it.

Asking for Racial Equality

"In the first place, when they talk about [World War II] and all that, [the war] began to bring in new people. We formed the organization called Christian Friends for Racial Equality. We called it that, because we wanted to interest particularly the churches. We thought that the churches were not doing all they could toward discrimination. So the little lady that was the head of it said, 'We’ll put in the word "Christian Friends for Racial Equality," which will include the churches if we may meet at times in the church' -- you see.

"So we did that, and that was that. 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 protest by all peaceful means, the denial of these rights and privileges and strive to develop a public conscience against racial and religious discrimination.

"This was an interracial group. And do you know that for a long time we tried our best to find a place for an office. And we couldn’t get a place rented to us for an office because it was an interracial group. But we finally did, we finally made it and got one good place up in the center of town for our office, after much striving. This was in ’42 [that] we began, so that was almost at the beginning of the war, you see. And from then on, we worked on discrimination in restaurants, hotels, Red Cross, theaters, housing projects, and urging that discrimination be abolished.

"As a result of some of it, for instance, the Red Cross trained three Negroes and one Chinese, as Nurse’s Aides. They were trained by the Red Cross. [Before,] Red Cross refused to have Negroes in their thing. And the Red Cross also refused to allow Negro women to act as Gray Ladies. Because they said their quota was filled, Gray Ladies, to visit the boys. So we kept hammering after that all during the war time. Until they finally broke down and we were allowed to visit the boys. I don’t know that we ever took the Gray Lady training, nobody that I knew of did. But we were allowed to visit the boys. ‘Course I don’t know how you’d have to be trained to go up and visit a boy and write a letter for him!

"They finally did decide that they would have a class, but they didn’t want it to get around, word around. And the Jewish women heard it and they thought they were talking about them, that they were trying to keep them out. So they began to make a big fuss, and that opened up the thing, too. Opened it up so that they did away with all that discrimination about Gray Ladies and so forth.

Food for the Masses

"During the Depression we had what we called the commissaries. And the commissaries were the food banks run in the different neighborhoods. The people decided that they didn’t want the … they didn’t want the authorities running the food banks, that they wanted to run them themselves. That is, the people who were out of work and the people who were needing the provisions. So they ran the food stores themselves.

"And in our neighborhood up on Madison they had the commissary where you could go and get the food. And you didn’t have to give your life’s history, as it were. See, they were trying to get it so that if you needed something you could get it, without so much delay. But some, of course there was some abuse of that too. Some of the people went up and gave wrong addresses and things. But you see, little things like that did happen, during this thing. Because it was run by the people who needed the food, that is, was run not by the authorities, but by the other people. And they did pretty good, only some of ‘em kept, some of ‘em who worked in the commissaries would take home most of the good food. And some of the wealthy people who were not willing to go down to the food bank in their own neighborhood would come with Rolls Royce and Lincolns to ours to get their food.

"We did have, they did have some houses that the very … bums and the poorest ones who couldn’t find any 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. But no more,they’ve cleaned up all that now. They don’t have any more Hooverville.

World War II

"[During World War II] Boeing imported people, the Northern Pacific brought people out, the trains and things like that. From the South and that’s where we got most of the Negro population from, was from the South you know, coming out. Groups of any kind, they brought out, I think. I know one … Boeing brought some girls out to work on ... they were working under NYA program. And they brought them out, but they didn’t have anyplace for them to stay. So we converted our recreation room in our building into a dormitory for those girls that were going to work for Boeing. And we kept them there until the end of the War, they lived in the YW [YWCA} till the end of the war.

"I went to work in the post office, because the government said they were getting ready to draft women, because of the lack of men. Because men were all being called up. So I decided to go out and get me a job in 1942. The war had started in ’41, remember. I worked nights. They had people from all different places coming down to help out to work, so I went down to work from six to ten…from ’42 to about ’45, when the boys began to come back. And then they asked if you didn’t want to quit, in order to give the boys a job. They didn’t have any short shift, in other words. So then I worked from three to eleven … till about 49, near ’50, I guess.

"During the war years, from say ’43 to ’45 ... [Christian Friends for Racial Equality] worked on what they called restrictive covenants in real estate. We were trying to break down the restrictive covenants in the property deed, which said that the property could not be sold to Negroes. And we had a hard time with it ... but the restrictive covenant in the deed, was declared illegal … We worked on that.

Japanese American "Evacuation" and Internment

"We even wrote the Mayor and the Sheriff on the attitude and statements, regarding the return of the Japanese to the city. [We wrote] in the newspapers or in different kinds of material. Trying to influence people. We wrote to the city officials and tried to make them understand the attitude and to influence people against being, you know, like that against people who had lived here, who were citizens, and who owned property here.

"Those people went off, some of ‘em went off and left their property. Just ... they had to get out overnight. But the property was theirs and they were American citizens. See, so we thought that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us. The way they jerked ‘em outta here … Girl, they jerked those people outta here like nothing flat. My husband was working at the immigration station and it was too funny. They called him up on the 7th.

"That’s the morning of the, the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. They called him up and they said 'Campbell, have you got a gun?' And he said 'Well I have an old revolver around here somewhere but I don’t know whether it will fire or not.' They said, 'Well, you get it, and come down to work.' Now this was Sunday. He’s not supposed to work Sunday. So he said, 'Alright.'

"So he got the gun. And I said, 'Now listen, don’t you go down there shooting anybody, nobody’s done anything to you.' So he went down, took his gun down. But what they were doing, they were rounding up all the Japanese. As soon as they heard, they began to round them all up to intern them. They brought ‘em down there, doctors, lawyers, merchants, didn’t make any different who it was. They brought ‘em down to the immigration station, you see, that is to prepare ‘em for internment. They was getting ‘em out in a hurry. But he said also that some of ‘em came down there in full dress outfits. They’d been celebrating the night before. I’m talking about dress clothes, like they were doctors, lawyers…when they went out for an evening and put on full dress clothes. So it was quick ... the roundup.

Then they were Americans who were running down to see about their Japanese friends you know, to see what have you got with Mr. so and so down here, Mr. so and so. But they picked them all up anyway. Then they began to ship ‘em to the internment camps. And first, we have a fair grounds out here at Puyallup where we have the State Fair in the fall. And that’s where they were taken first immediately, out there to those, and they lived in those different barns and shacks and things where they house the exhibits for the fair. That’s where they were interned for a long time. Most of them, some of them were sent to California to the internment camp.


Excerpt of Esther Mumford Interview with Bertha Pitts Campbell, April 23, 1975, Washington State Oral History Project, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington.

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