Obituary: Fannie Royston / Celebrated for volunteerism in East End

March 1, 1919 -- Oct. 17, 2012

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Fannie Royston, who went from a large sharecropping family in rural Georgia to accepting a national volunteerism award at the U.S. Supreme Court, died Wednesday. She was 93.

Something happened to Mrs. Royston after her husband, Moses, died in 1963. She and her two children had been living in a Squirrel Hill apartment house where he worked as a janitor, and when she tried to rent a new home in Oakland north of the Boulevard of the Allies, an invisible color barrier blocked the way.

Instead she took a run-down brick house on Ward Street in South Oakland, which was littered with broken glass and garbage.

Soon she was cleaning the street on her own, going door to door to meet poor neighbors, buying them food and starting community gardens. She paid rent for some neighbors and bail for others. Later she would found the South Oakland Citizens Council, be invited to the White House in 1967 and by June 1986 be honored with a Jefferson Medal of the American Institute for Public Service.

A stranger also being honored with a medal in Washington that day handed her an envelope with $5,000. It was Texas industrialist H. Ross Perot, and she put the money into a garden-tiller for a neighbor, and a new truck, manure and seedlings she needed for new gardens.

All this from a woman born out of the ashes of slavery in the rural South, who moved to Pittsburgh during the Great Depression following her older sisters Kate and Ada. Fannie, called "Baby" by the family, was uneducated, penniless and 13 years old.

"Nobody was standing there helping my mother. She knitted a life together herself," said her daughter, Ada Royston-Robinson of Boston. "She never forgot other people. She never said, 'Let's do this for myself.' It was 'Let's do things for other people.' "

Months before Fannie was born in Madison, Ga., her father, Sanders Mitchell, died during the 1918 pandemic. Her girlhood consisted of picking cotton with her 10 brothers and sisters, plowing fields behind a mule and worrying about growing out of her only pair of shoes.

At age 17 she married 42-year-old World War I veteran Moses Royston and began work as a cleaning lady in Squirrel Hill before being widowed at a young age, like her own mother.

Her sister Ada had helped her learn to read, and she passed a U.S. Postal Service exam. She would work nights sorting mail at the postal depot on California Avenue on the North Side and take all the weekend, night and holiday overtime she could get.

"Everybody laughs at me for the hours I work," she told the Post-Gazette's Sally Kalson in 1986. "But when people didn't want to give money for the things I wanted to do, I could always pay for them myself."

Those things were largely seedlings and books. Mrs. Royston bought an estimated $7,000 to $10,000 worth of seedlings annually and distributed them in such poor black city neighborhoods as East Liberty, Homewood, Hazelwood, Garfield, Glen Hazel, the Hill District, South Oakland and also parts of the North Side.

She also paid for tutors and books -- she personally had five sets of encyclopedias -- for extra study sessions for neighborhood kids at her house.

If children stayed out late and were sleeping through school she rapped on their windows to wake them. Wearing clothes she made herself -- some copied from outfits she saw at Saks while walking to work -- she lectured neighborhood men in bars for drinking too much.

"When folks tell me I can't do something, I just go and do it anyway. And you know what? I've outlasted a lot of them -- and I've out-dressed 'em, too," she told the Post-Gazette in 1986.

She retired from the Postal Service at age 70. Mrs. Royston outlived all her siblings, close relatives and friends and suffered from dementia the last two decades, during which she was cared for by Ursuline Senior Services.

"The problems Fannie Royston has addressed are local. But the poverty, ignorance, hunger and prejudice she fights exist throughout America," the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., said at her Jefferson Award ceremony, held in the East Conference Room at the high court. "We can learn a lot from Fannie Royston. I hope we do."

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by son Charles of Bloomfield.

A wake is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Samuel E. Coston Funeral Home, 427 Lincoln Ave., Larimer, with a funeral service following at 1:30 p.m.

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Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


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