Daisy Lampkin: A Life of Love and Service

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The March 11, 1965 front-page, banner headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, oldest newspaper in the United States west of the Allegheny Mountains, de­clared: “Alabama Race Tensions Mount … Marchers Defy Ban by Wallace.” The editorial page posed the ques­tion: “What Peace in Selma?” Just one day earlier, March 10, Pittsburgh’s Daisy Lampkin, whose life of labor and love contributed mightily to national attempts to dethrone “Jim Crow” and wrest political and social power from his legions, died at the age of about eighty-three.

According to her family, Daisy Lampkin was born in Washington, D.C., although there is uncertainty about the ac­tual date, listed as August 9, 1883. Significantly, that same year the U.S. Supreme Court had turned the unreconstructed nation’s clock backward nullifying laws passed by Congress in 1866 and 1875 which guaranteed equal rights for all citizens at hotels, theaters and other public places. This action fore­shadowed the legal establishment of a “Jim Crow” society. By the time Daisy Lampkin became a teenager, the high court handed down Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, establishing the per­nicious doctrine of “Separate but Equal” which was to plague American society for over half a century.

Daisy Adams spent most of her childhood in Reading, and moved to Pittsburgh in .1909, where she married William Lampkin, a restaurant proprietor. In 1912, she began her public career during the zenith of the suffrage movement, or­ganizing black women into political units by conducting street-corner campaigns. Much of her early activity involved leading consumer protest groups, and she was immediately recognized by the entire community as a woman of exception­al leadership ability. She worked her way upward through the ranks to positions of local, state and national prominence, serving in numerous social, civic and church-affiliated groups such as the National Association of Colored Women, the Na­tional Council of Negro Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Republican Party, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Urban League, the Nation­al Council of Churches and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Recently, special attention has been given to researching and writing the history of women who were social and po­litical activists. More specifically, some scholars are beginning to reinterpret the roles played by black women in the struggle for full citizenship, and many have expressed the opinion that Mrs. Daisy Lampkin has been sadly neglected in the continu­ing celebration of those who have led the battle for desegrega­tion and human dignity. For more than fifty years, Mrs. Lampkin exerted immeasurable influence on the dynamic de­velopment of twentieth-century American society.

Daisy Lampkin was always a pragmatic woman. This characteristic assured the highest yield from her seeming­ly inexhaustible source of energy, for she consistently prac­ticed her creed which placed organization at the top of her list of prerequisites for race progress. Her first active role in­volved the attainment of equal suffrage for two oppressed segments of American society: blacks first, and then women. Throughout her life, she remained committed to both causes, always in that precise order. Though she began her work lead­ing women, she quickly moved to what she believed was her larger calling, the elevation of all black Americans.

Mrs. Lampkin was determined that black women should shoulder their fair share of the responsibility in the suffrage movement, and in 1915 she became the third president of the Negro Women’s Equal Franchise Federation, founded in 1911. Later, the name was changed first to the Lucy Stone Suffrage League and finally to the Lucy Stone Civic League, a group which she headed for forty years. The original Pitts­burgh league affiliated with the Equal Franchise League of Western Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Women’s League and the National Women’s Suffrage League. Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of the legendary Lucy Stone, one of the most famous suffragettes of the nineteenth century, wel­comed Mrs. Lampkin and her group when they joined the na­tional body.

Mrs. Lampkin developed her amazing talents as a mobiliza­tion specialist working as organizer for the pioneer National Association of Colored Women as well as for the rejuvenation of the Pittsburgh branch of NAACP, the latter in cooperation with the legislator and jurist Homer S. Brown and the pub­lisher-politician Robert L. Vann. During the decades of the twenties and thirties, the women’s pages of the Pittsburgh Courier featured an impressive array of clubs which spon­sored scores of weekly events in the black community, and Daisy Lampkin was always out in front raising money for or­phans and widows, church mortgages and scholarships for youth. Early in her career she is credited with a candid state­ment about the necessity for women in leadership roles. She observed: “Our male leadership is so busy with their private interests that nothing is done unless the women do it.”

In reviewing Daisy Lampkin’s life, it is difficult to deter­mine which of the various group activities she considered the most worthy of the larger share of her time and talent, but it appears that early on she received the most public recognition for her political efforts. She plunged headlong into the politi­cal arena and began stumping the region on behalf of the Re­publican party. Only six years after American women gained the vote, she was elected as an alternate delegate at large to the national Republican party convention, a stellar achievement for any black or woman of that era.

She moved from local chairman of the Allegheny County Negro Women’s Republican League to vice-chairman of the Negro Voters League of Pennsylvania, then to vice-chairman of the Colored Voters Division of the Republican National Committee. A popular Virginia newspaper, the Newport News, on October 4, 1928 reported that she had traveled all over the country urging black voters to “stick to the party that had done the most for them.” Representing one of the few times she seems to have erred in her judgement, the Pittsburgh Courier printed a story on September 15, 1928 quoting her as expressing complete confidence in President Hoover and af­firming that he would continue “safe factory employment” for the race.

Undoubtedly, a factor which enhanced Mrs. Lampkin’s ele­vation to national leadership was her position on the top man­agement team of the Pittsburgh Courier. During the thirties and forties that paper was expanded by Robert L. Vann and his successors to become a tremendously popular and power­ful media machine, boasting editions in almost every major city in the United States. Its world-wide circulation was esti­mated at over one-half million during the World War II era.

Her superb talent for raising money was the key to ber as­cendancy to the top of the Courier organization, as well as to her success in all her other affiliations. She won first prize in a subscription contest in Pittsburgh, and ended the incident as a stockholder when the fledgling enterprise was unable to pay its promised cash award. Subsequently, she became vice-presi­dent and was willing to invest her considerable personal sav­ings when either Vann or Ira Lewis, the second president, needed additional capital for new ventures.

She performed multiple roles during her long tenure at the Courier, including writing and public relations assignments. A byline article in a 1923 edition indicates that she had been sent to Buffalo, New York to cover the funeral of the great pioneer educator, Mary Burnett Talbert. The Courier also noted, on June 9, 1923, that when Mrs. Sadie W. Stewart, president of the Indiana State Federation of Women’s Clubs and chairman of the National Association of Colored Wom­en, visited Pittsburgh, she was in the “official charge” of Mrs. Daisy Lampkin, who was just returning from a tour of Indiana and Illinois in the interest of that group. The Pitts­burgh community consistently expressed confidence in her ability, affectionately referring to her as “Our Daisy.”

Beyond the Courier, other newspapers were quick to praise her. The Post-Gazette claimed a debt owed to her by all Americans for the cause of justice in general and, more spe­cifically, for the advancement of the NAACP. That paper also asserted that she was indirectly influential in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and its far-reaching con­sequences. They printed the following short, profound edi­torial tribute on March 12, 1965, two days after she died:

Mrs. Daisy Lampkin
Americans owe a debt to the late Mrs. Daisy Lamp­kin, longtime civil rights leader and officer of the Pittsburgh Courier. Not only did she struggle for Negro rights before the justice of the cause was popularly accepted, but she was instrumental in ad­vancing the National Association for the Advance­ment of Colored People, and indirectly the case which led to the legally enforced desegregation of public schools. Mrs. Lampkin’s dynamic fund-rais­ing and relentless zeal were outstanding and uplift­ing. She cannot be replaced. Fortunately, she can be emulated.

A strong argument can be made that without the massive en­rollment of dues-paying members and the numerous large fi­nancial gifts she personally collected, the work of the NAACP in mounting and sustaining the frontal attack on “Jim Crow” through the courts may have been much more difficult and perhaps indefinitely delayed.

It might be argued, however, that her influence could be more accurately defined as direct and personal. Repre­sentative K. Leroy Irvis, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, remembers how “Aunt Daisy” had a way of arranging the careers of ambitious young men and women. He recalls meeting her when he was twelve years old in his hometown, Albany, New York, where she came to promote the program of the Albany Interracial Council, then headed by his parents. He had been given the assignment of helping to improve the appearance of the old church auditorium which served as headquarters. When Mrs. Lampkin found him on a ladder painting a wall, she stopped him and took great pains to inform him that he must go out and organize the other young people to complete the job. She was so forceful and in­spiring that he never forgot the lesson.

Years later, when Irvis graduated from college and could not find a job in Albany, she “arranged” for him to go to Baltimore, where he started out as a school teacher. Mrs. Lampkin had “arranged” a room for him in the home of an ardent club woman, Mrs. Norma Marshall, mother of the struggling young lawyer, Thurgood Marshall. In most ac­counts of her NAACP work, reference is made to the fact that she was also responsible for the recruitment of Mr. Marshall, now a justice on the United States Supreme Court, into the inner circle of the civil rights movement.

In 1938 Mrs. Lampkin beckoned Irvis to Pittsburgh to work for the Urban League and “arranged” living quarters for him on the third floor of her home. He remembers the eve­ning she called Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore and coun­seled in her charming manner: “Darling, it’s about time you left Baltimore and moved to New York to work where you are most needed.” Irvis recalls that Marshall must have raised questions about his financial readiness to make such a drastic change and he heard her say: “Darling, I didn’t say you needed any money. I just said it is time for you to move to New York and I have already ‘arranged’ everything.”

Daisy Lampkin’s influence was also clearly evident at the historic convention in Richmond in 1939, when the July 8 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American announced: “The battle front has changed from the effort to hammer the Amer­ican conscience and trained its legal artillery on the laws of the land. The local courts are now its first line trenches and its big guns are trained on the supreme body in Washington. Head­ing its formidable legal machine are Dr. Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and James N. Nabritt.” During this same meeting, Marian Anderson was presented with the Springarn Award, and the featured speaker was Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was introduced by Mrs. Daisy Lampkin and joined on the platform by such outStanding figures as Mary McLeod Bethune, Harry T. Burleigh, Walter White and Judge William Hastie. These events were also reported in the Baltimore Afro-American, which hailed the “emergence of the younger generation of leaders and new tactics.”

A remarkable attribute of Mrs. Lampkin was her ability to capture the hearts of people from every walk of life, high and low, rich and poor, intellectual and hardly literate. Her win­ning ways paid off handsomely for every organization she represented, especially for the NAACP. The Boston Guardian reported on November 21, 1941: “The membership drives she has conducted up and down the Atlantic coast are truly sensational. Last year at Hartford, Conn. in a short two week campaign, she increased the membership by 1,500, a typical example of her work.”

Most black newspapers carried weekly reports of NAACP branch activities. The Pittsburgh Courier of July 8, 1939, for example, included reference to the Chicago drive in which Mrs. Lampkin assisted Dr. A. Wilberforce Williams in a cam­paign for 5,000 new members. It was also noted that she had just completed a triumphant campaign in Baltimore, where 2,000 were added and the then considerable sum of $14,833 was collected. When she arrived in Memphis, the February 21, 1938 edition of the Memphis World announced: “She came bearing gifts.” Its colorful columnist, Nat D. Williams, intro­duced his column about Mrs. Lampkin with this poem:

Black men generally
moan and run and die
on a tree
while their women
wait and scheme and fight
to be free

Announcing a drive for 600,000 members, the NAACP Bulletin, February 1945, featured a front-page article on Mrs. Daisy Lampkin, who had been named the NAACP Woman of the Year, pointing out that during 1944 she had directed the enrollment of the largest membership in the history of the NAACP. The Bulletin reported that she had raised more money than any other NAACP executive and only Walter White had served longer. In 1956 she organized a special proj­ect for the Links, Inc. and presented a check for $26,850 to Executive Director Roy Wilkins.

The 70th anniversary edition of The Crisis, the official pub­lication of the NAACP, applauded her work as organizer of “hundreds of branches and youth councils across the na­tion.” Beginning with a recruitment drive in Pittsburgh in 1920, Mrs. Lampkin was moved up to the post of Regional Field Secretary, serving there from 1930 to 1935 when she was named National Field Secretary, a position she held until 1947. She was elected to the National Board of Directors in 1949, a signal honor for a former staff member. She never stopped working in the trenches. It was, in fact, while con­ducting yet another membership drive in Camden, N.J. that she suffered a stroke in October 1964. Two months later her good friend, Lena Horne, accepted the coveted Eleanor Roosevelt-Mary McLeod Bethune World Citizenship Award for Mrs. Lampkin, who told a Pittsburgh reporter that it was the first time she could remember having to miss any “such doings.”

Perhaps the most significant document in the volumes of reports and periodicals which offer evidence of Daisy Lamp­kin’s relentless zeal and total commitment to advancing humankind is a short letter. Written to her by the founders and crusaders of the headquarters office, the letter suggests the extent to which they depended upon her. Typed on the New York office letterhead, it is dated October 20, 1931 and reads:

To Mrs. Daisy Lampkin,
From her Co-Workers at the National Office in ap­preciation of the magnificent job just completed in New York City-the Drive for Membership, culmi­nating in the organization of the New York branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The signatures are as follow: Walter White, Herbert J. Selig­man, Robert N. Bagnall, Roy Wilkins, Richetta G. Randolph, W.E.B. DuBois, Irene C. Malvan, Mary White Ovington and William Pickens.

The last two sentences of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette edi­torial tribute provide a fitting conclusion for the life and labor of Mrs. Daisy Lampkin. “She cannot be replaced. Fortunate­ly, she can be emulated.”


This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Fifth Annual Black History in Pennsylvania Conference, a pro­gram which was established with the guidance of the Pennsyl­vania Black History Advisory Committee, of which Dr. McKenzie is a member.


Edna B. McKenzie is a professor of history and chairperson of the department of black, minority and ethnic studies at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, and is a member of the executive council of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History and author of Free­dom in the Midst of a Slave Society. From 1941 to 1950 she was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Courier.