Vivian Osborne Marsh

Her list of contributions to the advancement and equality of Black men and women is vast and her impact is undeniable.

Vivian Osborne Marsh


Vivian Osborne Marsh was one of the most influential Black women in the San Francisco area. Marsh served her community as an activist and government official.

Vivian Costroma Osborne (birth name) was born in Houston, Texas on September 5, 1897, and moved to California at the age of fifteen with her sister and their widowed mother. After high school, she applied to the University of California-Berkeley, and because she was schooled in the South, she was required to take numerous entrance exams. However, they discontinued that policy soon after because she scored so well on the exams.

Vivian was the first Black woman to ever major in anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley. She earned two degrees at Berkeley: a bachelor’s in 1920 and a master’s degree in 1922, both in anthropology.

“In America alone, stories that the Negro brought over from Africa with him have either been preserved in their native forms, worked entirely over … or are altered to suit the surroundings.”— From her master’s thesis entitled ‘Types and Distribution of Negro Folklore in America’.


She was also a founding member and first president of the Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, bringing the first historically Black sorority to the campus. Delta Sigma Theta, founded at Howard University in 1913, proclaimed a dual purpose of “academic excellence and social service.” Osborne maintained a passionate, lifelong association with her sorority and hosted many meetings of sorority members in her home in Berkeley. From 1935-39 she served as the seventh national president. One of her initiatives was a traveling library for children in rural Georgia.


After marrying World War I veteran Leon F. Marsh, in 1921, Vivian Osborne Marsh and her husband were community activists and influential leaders in many organizations in San Francisco and the State. They raised two sons, Roy Curtin Osborne, and Leon F. Marsh Jr.; Leon Jr., the first black firefighter in Berkeley.

In 1931, while serving as secretary for the Northern Board of the California Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, Vivian fought hard to stop a racist bill that would have segregated children in recreational areas. During the Depression Marsh led the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Organization, which found jobs for unemployed youth.


She was elected president of the California State Association of Colored Women in 1941 and was active in the National Council of Negro Women. During WWII, Marsh led the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Corps of America. She ran for the City Council of Berkeley with the support of several organizations in 1959 but lost.

Her list of contributions to the advancement and equality of Black men and women is vast and her impact is undeniable. The city of Berkeley declared Vivian Osborne Marsh Day on February 21, 1981, to honor her leadership, a small token of gratitude for a life spent tirelessly in community service.


She was widowed when Leon F. Marsh died in 1968, and she died on March 8, 1986, aged 87 years, at a nursing home in El Cerrito, California, following a stroke. Canadian football player Dante Marsh is her great-grandson.



HERSTORY Makes History 22, August 2022