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Meda Chamberlain dies at 94; South L.A. community leader

Meda Chamberlain worked closely with civil rights icon Dorothy Height, helping to organize the National Council of Negro Women and other community groups in South Los Angeles for three decades.

August 13, 2011|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Meda Chamberlain, a longtime Southern California leader of the National Council of Negro Women, counted overseeing the Black Family Reunion Celebration as one of her proudest achievements.
Meda Chamberlain, a longtime Southern California leader of the National…

Meda Chamberlain, a longtime local leader of the National Council of Negro Women who spent three decades working in tandem with major civil-rights activist Dorothy Height, has died. She was 94.

Chamberlain, whose health had been in decline, died Aug. 5 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, her family said.

As executive director of the Southern California region of the council, Chamberlain once said her "prize" accomplishment was overseeing the Black Family Reunion Celebration in Los Angeles from 1986 to 1995.

Founded to counter negative images of the black family, the weekend celebration was tied to the national cultural event of the same name that owed its beginnings to Height.

"It went over so well in the community, it made Meda feel like she contributed something," said her sister, Mary Bush.

After the Watts riots, Chamberlain helped the council's View Park section establish a critically needed food co-op in the area, said Carolynn Martin, president the View Park branch that Chamberlain helped co-found in 1962.

When the council's regional headquarters in South Los Angeles burned down during the riots, Chamberlain played a key role in finding and orchestrating the purchase of a new building on 54th Street, where the offices remain.

She also organized federally funded council programs that helped hundreds find jobs and spearheaded national educational initiatives, according to the council.

Another highlight from her years of service, according to her family, was a White House trip with Height to encourage then-President Lyndon Johnson to appoint more black women to government positions. Height died last year at 98.

Meda Howard was born July 11, 1917, in DeBerry, Texas. After her mother died when Meda was 4, she was raised by an aunt in Marshall, Texas.

At Bishop College in Marshall, Howard received a bachelor's degree in education. She moved to the Los Angeles area in 1943, where she worked as a riveter in a shipyard.

In the 1940s she married William Chamberlain, an engineer who died in the late 1960s.

At USC, Chamberlain earned a master's degree in education and a doctorate in psychology, according to the council.

For about 25 years, she taught elementary school in Whittier.

Her reputation as a baker extended beyond the peach cobbler she invariably brought to family gatherings. One local group lamented her absence by writing: "No more sweet potato pies, alas!"

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul Baptist Church, 100 W. 49th St., Los Angeles.

Besides her sister, Mary, Chamberlain is survived by four brothers, James Howard, Zohn'yia Howard, Bennie Howard and Louis Duffy.

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