MONTROSE Colo. (KREX)—
The year is 1908 and Montrose High School has only one black student, Bertha Pitts Campbell. But that’s not what made Bertha stand out. 56 years before the U.S. senate approved the landmark Civil Rights Act, Bertha graduated valedictorian of her class. In her speech at the commencement, she called out issues that wouldn’t be legally resolved for decades.
She was offered a four-year scholarship to Colorado college after high school, but Bertha instead opted to attend the country’s first all-black institution Howard University in Washington DC. There, Bertha worked with 21 other black young women to start the first-ever chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. These women ensured Delta Sigma Theta would work for equality for all. Their first official community action was to join the suffrage march of 1913.
Bertha made her greatest strides for civil rights in Seattle. She worked with Seattle’s Urban League and helped found Christian Friends for Racial Equality. The organization created historic housing opportunities for black people in Washington state.
Bertha worked her whole life towards the goal of true equality. 69 years after her sorority first marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, Bertha, 92 years old at the time, marched again to commemorate that first bold step.
though her historic legacy is unknown to most Coloradans, Seattle officially recognized Bertha’s civil rights leadership on June 30th of 1989.
Below is her full valedictorian speech from 1908 as published in the Montrose Press:
Injustice to the Negro.
How many people ever think as much about the Injustice done to the black man as about the crimes and outrages committed by him? Some do ’tis true, but the general mass see in him a low’ wretch suitable only for a submissive slave or Judge Lynch. A negro? What is a negro? Is asked by many people in this country whose motto Is: “A government of the people, by the people, for the people.” He seems to be a species of monkey, a degeneration beside the white man.
True, the negro has faults and traits that are to be condemned, but how could he have risen in forty years, from the demoralizing effects of almost two hundred and fifty years of slavery. You will doubtless say slavery nevertheless gave him arts of civilized life. Well if it did it also denied him the greatest blessing he might have had, the product of his labor; therefore he had no incentive to labor at these arts and make the most of them. Now, my reader, looking at the depths from which the negro has risen to such present positions as he now holds, let me show you that according to his advancement in every line of art, he is treated unjustly by the white man.
How does the negro fare in the field of labor? Because of the labor unions, a skilled laborer cannot get employment often. This is especially true in the north where negro population Is not dense enough to support their own people. If the same chance to earn a living as his white neighbor, he would be a far more desirable citizen and wealth producer. Surely the black man has the same capacity for work, the same spirit purpose and desire to rise as the white man and he is as much entitled to share the blessings of life, its honors and rewards. Many a white laborer refuses to work beside a negro. And why? Because the color of the skin and the texture of the hair is different. Now the negro must have a living and he will get it by foul means or in an honorable way; the white man can determine the way. In this “land of the free and home of the brave” every good citizen should be provided with opportunity and stimulus to make the most of himself be he black or white. Suppose a negro goes hunting for work in some part of this country. Barred on every hand; plenty of sentiment but no work; he is told to move on. “He is a bad white man who will not help his black neighbor when that black man shows the spirit to help himself. No person can hold another in a ditch without remaining with him.” So, It Is as advantageous for the white man to help _______ the negro as it is his duty to a fellow-citizen. When the white man ___’s the negro It is not a case of ____ going out and nothing coming in. Surely this country, for which he has toiled, fought, and died owes him a living if he desires to make one.
All citizens, if orderly and respectable have a right to be served in all public places and In a courteous manner, and yet there exists In most all places discrimination in hotels, soda fountains, restaurants, and such places, on account of race and color. What reason does the white man give for such treatment? He will say they are disorderly. Are there no respectable, law-abiding people of the colored race? Are there no low disorderly white people? Alas! the entire negro race must suffer for a crime or wrong of one of Its members. All colored people are held as belonging to the same class; a crime on one would commit so would all the rest. Now the whites should show the negro that if he respects himself he will be respected. By this discrimination, the white man should not make him feel that he Is a subject of hatred and strife and that he is handicapped at every effort to rise from the low depths in which he is plunged. Respect the right, white citizen, that the black man has as a citizen. The constitution that gave the white man his rights granted the same ones to the negro. The whites demand that their rights must be respected and they in return should respect the same of other people.
Everyone knows the important part the women of a race play. Injure them and the race to which they belong Is Injured. Senator Tillman has said in his various lectures that NO negro woman is virtuous. Such a hatred-breeding speech is a kick to the negro womanhood of America. People gather to hear this degrading thing spoken, some believing others not; but race feeling becomes more bitter on account of it. Think of having this disgraceful thing preached from town to town! Can’t the white man imagine the feelings of the poor black who has tried so hard to rise under all kinds of kicks and blows? Does Tillman better anybody by such speeches? Of course not. He heaps more live coals on the unfortunate black. “All negroes are Immoral!” If this were applied to the white race It would astonish the entire world. Why not judge the negro with the same logic that the white man is judged with. Some negroes are now immoral, many, almost all, were for some time after they were freed. But where did it originate? Again, the blame is on the whites. During slavery the temptation of the white masters to abuse the power they held over those who could not and dared not resent any crime against, them and the gratifying of baser appetite brot on this terrible Immorality among the blacks. Let the whites allow the negro two hundred and fifty years to wear off the marks of slavery endured for the same length of time, and at the same time lie as ardent in elevating him as they were in degrading him —then judge him as to moral goodness.
Will my reader look at the courts in the south? Is there justice for the negro in them? Maybe If he ever got to them, but there seems to be an unwritten law to the effect that criminal negroes must be lynched as captured. But the question is whether he would get Justice If he got to the courts. Perhaps it Is too sweeping to say no negroes ever get to court in the south. Some do, but they don’t get justice. People charged with a crime are held by the law as Innocent until proven guilty, but vice versa with the negro. The prejudice against him makes his trial a mere mockery of justice. The convict lease system spurs the white man on to this unfair treatment of the negro in the south. Altho the Emancipation Proclamation, written and issued by Immortal Lincoln, has been in operation for forty years yet there exists, in this system a species of slavery which is fostered and supported by the laws of the south. It Is therefore advantageous to the southerners that they convict as many people as possible. The prisoners are huddled together like cattle regardless of sex. Boys and girls are sent there upon trivial charges for the express purpose of securing to the lessees of convicts the benefit; of their unrequited toil. By all means no! But what other effect can bad company have on children than to make criminals of them? Worse than all. the negro cannot stop these outrages against him for he cannot vote. He has no voice in making the laws which govern him. Have you anything to say about the laws which govern you. Mr. White Man? Indeed, you have and you would fight until you died to defend that say, if anyone sought to deprive you of it. Now let the white man put himself ‘in the negro’s place. He’d like to | say something of what is to be done with him and if he can not he is no better off than in slavery. “For he’s a slave who cannot be in the I right with two or three.” No one of good judgment will deny that it is better to increase law-abiding citizens than criminals. Which type does most good for the country? What j kind of a showing does it make for American civilization to have such hosts of criminals and dens of vice in its midst? Let the white man deal justice to the criminal negro in order to reform him so that he may benefit civilization in an honorable way.
Yet one thing more belonging to the outrages against the negro. What does my reader think about the “Jim Crow Laws?” Pretty good are they not? At least most white people think so. A citizen because he happens to be black must ride in separate cars, from his white neighbor; yet he pays the same price as the white man. he receives the poorest possible accommodations. No matter how respectable a colored man may be, he must not ride with the white man. Not only railroads but elevators and street cars are ”Jim Crowing” the blacks. Things surely are getting harder for the poor negro. Years ago, he could ride where he pleased but now he must take a “back seat.” The white man cannot allow him too many privileges because he is too much of that oppressive nature. Wherever the chance presents itself the whites never fail to assert their domineering spirit. In some instances where negroes ride in the same car with the whites (only are seated back of them) should a white man be in need of a seat a black man, woman, or child would have to give up theirs to him. A white man would never think of asking a woman of his race to give him her seat; but a colored woman would have to. Two beings belonging to the same sex, entitled therefore to the courtesies due that sex, yet so differently treated. Will such outrages go on forever? If not, where will it end? It cannot go on forever without having effects on both races. The effects cannot be good. No country can progress as rapidly when there is eternal strife among its people as when all elements are at peace and work to the advantage of each other.
The success of a race is measured by the depths from which It has come and under what conditions it has developed. If a race Is successful, it should have the credit and be treated as such. Is a race who can produce a B. T. Washington, P. L. Dunbar, Henry Tanner, and many others as great, successful? Can one say that a race who only forty years out of slavery is a failure when it has produced skilled workmen in every line; of work carried on by the white man?
The negro is not merely an imitator, but he has shown that he possesses inventive genius. There have been hundreds of things invented by him not mere changes In somebody else’s work but his original work.
He has shown his ability to give as well as receive knowledge; he has displayed his ability in the field of authorship and he has in every way proved a capacity for entering every occupation, equal to that of the white man. Therefore, the negro Is not a failure.
But if the white man thinks the negro race is indolent and void of ambition, let him open to it the door of hope that the black boys and girls may be inspired with the same ambition to occupy positions of honor and dignity as the whites. Do not. close the doors of every avenue of usefulness in the negro’s face and then curse him for being Indolent. And so I think that a little equal chance and a little fair play will do more for the colored race than millions of charity money.
This paper has not been written by one who holds a bitter attitude toward these things, but the writer merely wants to bring before you things as they exist which you, my reader, have not noticed or have not thought seriously upon. Won’t you, reader, do your part to better these conditions should you ever have the opportunity?