Obituary: Robert W. Chambers Sr. / Civil rights leader who was active in Monroeville
Jan. 30, 1926 - Sept. 18, 2012
September 23, 2012 4:00 AM
Robert W. Chambers Sr.
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Rev. Buena Smith Dudley remembers the days when blacks weren't welcomed on the football team or the cheerleading squad at Gateway High School. She recalls coming home from school one day to find a cross that had been burned in her yard in Monroeville.
And she will tell you that Robert W. Chambers Sr. was one of the key people responsible for changing all of that.
Mr. Chambers, along with her parents and some others, worked to improve the racial climate in the municipality and to ensure that African-Americans were treated equally and fairly, Rev. Dudley said.
"He was at the forefront of ameliorating the racial tension and having us work together," she said.
Mr. Chambers, a former president of the East Suburban chapter of the NAACP and a longtime civic and civil rights leader, died Tuesday of lung cancer at his home in Monroeville. He was 86.
Born in North Braddock on Jan. 30, 1926, Mr. Chambers, the son of a farmer, moved to Monroeville when he was 4 years old and remained there for much of his life.
After serving in World War II and marrying, Mr. Chambers settled in the Boyd Hill section of Monroeville and got started in civic affairs by fighting to get roads paved and ditches filled.
His appetite whetted, he founded the Boyd Hill Civic Club, which later became the East Suburban chapter of the NAACP, where he served as one of the first presidents. He remained with the organization for more than three decades.
During that period, Mr. Chambers fought to get African-Americans seated on the school board and hired as teachers and police officers, said his son, Robert W. Chambers Jr. He also worked to resolve racial issues in the schools and to get better housing for blacks.
"They would come up to school and take stands for us. It was quite a fight, but things changed," Rev. Dudley said of Mr. Chambers, her parents and other civil rights leaders in Monroeville at the time.
"They believed in working with the community. They just didn't form a black organization. They worked primarily with interracial groups."
Mr. Chambers was driven by his own experiences as both a child and an adult having to deal with segregation, prejudice, and racial taunts or jokes, his son said. It was one reason, he noted, that his dad did not like being called by a nickname.
During that time, Mr. Chambers served as a mentor to many, including Robert Fletcher, a friend of Robert Chambers Jr. who grew up in Monroeville and who now operates heart-lung machines during cardiac surgeries in Southern California.
"He just was somebody we could use as a role model. He seemed to be pretty politically connected. When a situation came up, he always seemed to have a connection to fix the problem," Mr. Fletcher said.
In 1983, Mr. Chambers found himself facing a trial after shooting two people in the leg during a fracas at Monroeville's Overlook Park, an incident sparked when Mr. Chambers believed that a white man had used a racial slur to his grandson. He testified that when he went to the park to confront the man, he ended up being assaulted and that a crowd of picnickers surrounded him, one of them beating him with a baseball bat. He said he fired two shots from the gun, which he had a permit to carry, in self-defense. An all-white jury acquitted him of all charges. It also acquitted the man who was accused of assaulting him and who gave a different version of events.
In the aftermath, Mr. Chambers "thanked the Lord. The Lord knows he was trying to protect himself and do the right thing, keep the peace," his son said.
In addition to his work with the NAACP, Mr. Chambers also was instrumental in getting a human relations commission and a Head Start program up and running in Monroeville, his son said.
After stints at Atcheson Steel, Westinghouse and other jobs, Mr. Chambers worked at Union Railroad in maintenance for 36 years before retiring in 1986. During that time, he missed only two days of work and that was when his father died, according to his son.
During World War II, Mr. Chambers was a member of the Army's 420th Quartermaster Service Company, serving as a supply guard and furnace fireman on a supply train that ran between France and Germany. He received a number of awards, including a Good Conduct Medal, five battle stars and a World War II Victory Ribbon.
After the war, he married his wife, Mary, who died in 2003. Mr. Chambers served as an usher, a trustee and a trustee emeritus at Bethel AME Church in Monroeville, where he started a fund to buy flowers for members of the community who experienced a death in the family.
He also was a vice commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a disaster officer for the American Red Cross for 25 years.
Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Gwendolyn Yvonne Chambers Brathwaite of Brooklyn, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Friends will be received from 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Bethel AME Church, 2538 Woodlawn Drive, Monroeville. The funeral will be held at the church at noon on Friday. Burial will be in Restland Memorial Park, Monroeville. Arrangements are being handled by Watts Memorial Chapel in Braddock.