Daisy Riley, one of the first Black women to work at Campbell Soup Co., has died at 100

Daisy Riley, 100, of Camden, one of the first Black women to work at Campbell Soup Co. during World War II, a matriarch and `Queen’ of her neighborhood, died Tuesday, Dec. 5, of colorectal cancer and respiratory failure at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden.

Mrs. Riley was frequently asked about her secrets to longevity and credited her strong faith, healthy eating and living right. She began every day with prayer and meditation.

“It was all because of the Lord that things worked out like they did,” she said in an interview with the Inquirer days after celebrating her 100th birthday in October. It wasn’t on my own. It’s just the Lord was in it.”

» READ MORE: One of the first Black women to work at Campbell Soup, this 100-year-old is known as ‘the Queen’

More than 120 family members spanning five generations and friends gathered in October at Paris Catering to mark her milestone birthday. She helped with the planning. She wore a blue-and-silver outfit with a wide brim hat — her signature adornment for just about every outfit — and made a grand entrance as the audience cheered.

“We didn’t know we were giving our mother a send-off,” said her daughter, Alysha Riley, 63, choking back tears. “I thank God that I had a mother like her.”

Daisy Riley was born on Oct. 3, 1923, in Wadley, Ga., and grew up with two brothers and a sister. Shortly after graduating from high school, she moved to Philadelphia at 18 in 1942, following relatives who migrated here. She was married to Phenizy Riley and had two children, Alysha and Phenizy. The couple later divorced, and Mrs. Riley never remarried.

Mrs. Riley initially worked odd jobs and eventually moved to Camden, where she landed a job at Campbell Soup Co. during World War II. With men deployed to fight abroad, women filled a labor shortage with factory jobs.

She was among the first Black women there, hired on Jan. 14, 1943, in the soup manufacturer’s plant on the Delaware River, earing 51 cents an hour to produce rations for soldiers. Her first paycheck was $25.

Mrs. Riley encountered racism from the white women who operated the plant, she had said.

When her coworkers refused to sit with her in the lunchroom, she ate alone, she recalled. They also banned her from using the same bathroom facilities, she said.

“It was really rough. They treated me terribly,” Mrs. Riley recalled. “Those white girls didn’t want me there.”

Eventually, more Black women were hired and conditions improved. For more than 18 years, Mrs. Riley worked the production line, making lids for soup cans, and in the canned division packing soup cases. She later worked in the kitchen preparing meals for executives.

The factory work was grueling, standing on her feet for an eight-hour shift working the conveyor belt in a hot plant. But Mrs. Riley said she enjoyed working there and made a decent living to provide for her family. She brought Campbell’s products home — Swanson TV dinners and Pepperidge Farm cookies. She dubbed her children “Campbell’s kids.”

At home, she doled out discipline with love and looked out for her children and others, said her son, Phenizy Riley, 71, of Fontana, Calif. She prayed with him every night via Facetime, and recited Psalm 91, he said.

“She was a great mother,” her son said.

After retiring from Campbell’s in 1986 with 43 years of service, Mrs. Riley was a lunch aide at then-John Whittier Elementary School in Camden and Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken.

She was a fixture in Camden’s Parkside neighborhood, known by nearly everyone as “The Queen.” When the weather was nice, she would hold court on the porch of her neatly kept rowhouse on Haddon Avenue that she purchased in 1966.

“She was a very good neighbor,” said Theodore Phoenix, 90, who lives next door and would sit outside with her. “We are going to miss her.”

Mrs. Riley especially loved the neighborhood children and would give them peach and vanilla ice cream, said another neighbor, Yaniece Spencer. She also took them to the Adventure Aquarium where she worked part-time.

Despite undergoing a double-knee replacement and three cornea transplants, Mrs. Riley remained active and maintained her independence. She modeled in fashion shows and was the founder and Queen Mother of the Ladies of Royalty Chapter of the Red Hat Society, a social group for women over 50. She also started a travel group, “Traveling with Miss Daisy.”

She faithfully attended First Nazarene Baptist Church where she had been a member for 72 years. She was the oldest member and sang with the senior and gospel choirs and was president of the usher board.

During the pandemic, Mrs. Riley attended virtual worship services, said the Rev. Dyheim T. Watson. Always stylish, she would appear on camera dressed in her Sunday best, he said.

“She was a great contribution to the church,” Watson said. “Her life spoke for her.”

In addition to her children, Mrs. Riley is survived by five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

A viewing will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, at Doreen Boyd Legacy Hall, 1801 Haddon Ave., Camden. A second viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19, followed by services at First Nazarene Baptist Church, 1500 S. 8th St., Camden. The interment will be at Lakeview Memorial Park in Cinnaminson.

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