As a child growing up in Rankin, Sarah Campbell watched as her father, Solomon Bradford, fought to make positive social change within the African-American community. In 1900, her parents were forced to flee their home in Alabama when they learned their small restaurant was going to be burned down. After arriving on the train in Freeport, he became an activist, urging his fellow blacks to demand more for their race than was being offered.
What she learned was this: When you get involved, you can help enhance the quality of people's lives.
"He always believed in a quality of life that was fair and just for everyone," said Mrs. Campbell, of Homewood.
Mrs. Campbell carried those lessons with her into adulthood, becoming an activist for social change in Homewood, where she moved with her husband, David, and two children in the late 1950s. It wasn't enough to develop and serve on a parent-teacher association at Baxter Elementary: After seeing her daughter, Donna, off to school in 1954, she asked her husband to drive her to the new veteran's hospital in Oakland so she could volunteer there, too.
That's the year she also led the fight to bring better city services to her neighborhood, which wasn't enjoying the same fruits of mayor David L. Lawrence's "Renaissance I" as the rest of the city. Homewood's sewers were so thick with muck that trees grew through the manhole covers, she recalled, and it also was rife with bookies, who went door to door selling numbers.
Helping to form the Homewood-Brushton Community Improvement Association, Mrs. Campbell took a list of concerns to city council, shaming the city into cracking down on the illegal numbers business and cleaning the sewers.
For those actions, and many, many more in the nearly 60 years since, the 91-year-old was honored Sunday at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in the East End with the Clara Barton Sisterhood award. It was presented during a service officiated by the Rev. David Herndon that also welcomed new members.
The national award was established by the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation to honor Unitarian Universalist women aged 80 or older who have made outstanding contributions to their church and community. Only one award was handed out this year.
Members nominated her for two reasons, board vice president Audrey Masalehdan said. First is for her many accomplishments. A member since 1960, Mrs. Campbell started the church's bookstore. She also organized the Black Concerns Committee (which became the Anti-Racism Committee), organized retreats and worked on its capital campaign.
"And she listened to many sermons and made many good friends," Mrs. Masalehdan said.
Second, the grandmother of four and great-grandmother of six is moving east next month to be closer to family. So the awards ceremony also served as the church's farewell reception.
Mrs. Campbell's first brush with activism came at the tender age of 9, when she gave a speech at a mosque in Rankin entitled "Black Man, Wake Up." She's never lost that youthful enthusiasm for effecting change and bettering people's lives, Mrs. Masalehdan said.
In addition to her work with HBCIA, Mrs. Campbell helped bring a health clinic to Homewood. (It eventually grew into Alma Illery Health Center.) She also was instrumental in the demolition of Homewood's "killing fields," a row of condemned houses on Collier Street that was a hotbed for drugs and violence; helped found the YWCA's first Homewood-Brushton chapter, which in the 1960s met in the Baxter School cafeteria; worked to reduce crowding at Westinghouse High School; and was a driving force behind the Renewal Council, a grass-roots group whose aim was to preserve land in Homewood and preventing it from becoming a slum.
Amid all that volunteering, she found time to earn a master's degree in 1972 in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, after which she became a social worker with the Department of Public Welfare. Other organizations she's founded, chaired or nurtured include the Homewood Children's Village, National Council of Negro Women, AARP, ACTION Housing ... and the list goes on and on.
"She's the youngest 90-year-old I know," said Tim Stevens, leader of the Black Political Empowerment Project in the Hill District, who sat with her on a panel in city council chambers after 2010's Jordan Miles incident (she is on the Zone 5 Public Safety Council). "Her consciousness of issues, and passion to deal with them, never ceases. She has been a gift to Pittsburgh."
"She's a fierce and loving force that helped move mountains and shatter injustice," agreed Lisa Perry, director of community affairs for the Homewood Children's Village, which at Mrs. Campbell's request received part of Sunday's offering. "And she helped others find their voice."
Sunday's award was just the latest in a string of honors for the diminutive Pittsburgher that include a YMCA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and an AFL-CIO Lifetime Membership Award for Service a year later. She also has been nominated for a local Jefferson Award for public service, and in 2012 was bestowed B-PEP's Lifetime Achievement Award for Community Service and Advocacy for her work with HBCIA.
Mrs. Campbell was characteristically modest in receiving the award.
"People always ask, 'How can you do these things?' " she told the congregation. "My answer is, you have it in your hands."
Community activism, she said, is about bringing people together, sitting down to analyze the problem and then finding the resources you need to bring closure.
"No one person can accomplish it. We need unity," she said. "I am standing on someone else's shoulders."
When Mrs. Campbell moves next month, she'll leave behind shoes that will be pretty hard to fill. Rev. Herndon hopes she'll serve as inspiration for other activists.
As he put it during his sermon encouraging new members to seek out volunteer opportunities, "Ask yourself, 'What would Sarah Campbell do?' "
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.