Delilah Beasley: Pioneering Black Journalist and Historian

As we reach the end of black history month, I thought it would be a good time to share a rather inspiring woman that I only found out about recently. Delilah Beasley was a black female journalist and historian who never gave up on her goal to promote improved inter-racial relations, alongside her Christian faith. Her story is one of hope and determination but as one recent article in the New York Times wrote, despite her efforts to write black history back into the history books, she herself has also been brushed out.[1] For this reason, I hope this blog post goes some way towards sharing Delilah’s story and the effort she put into creating a positive outlook on black history and unity in not just California, where she spent over twenty years of her life, but across America.

Photograph of Deliliah Bearsley from the Frontispiece of her book, Negro Trailblazers of California (1919), Wikimedia Commons

Delilah Leontium Beasley was born on 9 September 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents Daniel and Margaret Beasley. At the age of 12, Delilah began to write short pieces about local church activities for the Cleveland Gazette newspaper, as well some other local newspapers.[2] With these small pieces, she grew to dream of becoming a professional journalist. When she was high school age, she began to learn about journalism by working for a newspaper called the Coloured Catholic Tribune, which once again mixed her love of journalism with her Christian faith.[3] However, this would soon change as in the 1880s, both of her parents died, leaving Deliliah an orphaned teenager. The death of her parents separated her from her siblings, as all of them had to now find work to fend for themselves. Sadly, it looked as if her dream of becoming a journalist would be over without the support of her parents.

Delilah initially became a maid, before moving to Chicago to train to be a hairdresser. However, she  eventually decided that nursing would be more suited to her caring nature. Once she was trained, she moved across various parts of America to find work at sanitoriums, which were a type of convalescent hospital. In 1910, she moved to Oakland in California to care for a former patient.[4] Whilst there, she decided that during her spare time, she should to get back into researching. She researched black history and became a member of various different societies and associations that promoted issues such as black rights, black women and black Christianity. Despite not finishing her formal schooling, she enrolled onto history courses so she could understand how to research black history, as well as conducting oral interviews of elderly black residents in the local area. Her aim was to learn about those that had been left out of the history books and to right the wrongs of that.

Cover of The Negro Trail-Blazers of California (1919), California State University Northridge University Library, F870.N38 B3

Delilah’s research was very meticulous. She became well known for her archival research and ability to track down personal letters and diaries.[5] All of this research conducted did not go to waste as she successfully did manage to write about pioneering black people of California in her book, Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was published in 1919. The book gave examples of black pioneers dating back to the Spanish exploration of the Americas.[6] It was a success and proved a platform to positively influence the way the black community was perceived.[7] After writing this, she also travelled around giving talks on her research and her beliefs about black rights, peace and the hope of positive inter-racial relations at a time when America was still segregated. All of these trips, whether for research purposes, or to hold events and talks, was always paid for at her own expense. It was this determination that allowed her to make some high powered friends.

Heading of Deliliah’s column for the Oakland Tribune, https://www.newspapers.com/

Following the publication of Negro Trail Blazers of California, Delilah came to know William Knowland, a white man who was a Californian politician and the assistant publisher for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. The pair knew each other well and Knowland invited Delilah to write a column for the newspaper. She accepted and the column became known as Activities Among Negroes, which promoted outstanding black people. This was a popular column and one which Deliliah would write until her death in 1934. Her friendship with William Knowland also allowed the first anti-lynching bill to passed in California.[8]

Delilah’s faith played a huge role in her life. She regularly attended the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, where she was noted for her attitude of others first and self last.[9] It was this attitude that saw drove her missions as she believed she could help the plight of suffering that all black people across America had to endure. As Deliliah herself put it, she always thought she was doing God’s work, which explains why nearly all of her talks were given in churches.[10] Many of the organisations she was a member of also overlapped with the church, so it is fitting that her funeral, held at St Francis de Sales, was well attended by presidents of these organisations.[11]

Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) St. Francis de Sales Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, Alameda County, CA. Oakland California Alameda County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ca1797/

I hope this post has gone someway to showing just what a remarkable woman Deliliah Beasley really was. It is a shame that since her death, she herself as been somewhat removed from the history books, even though she tried to counteract this of other black pioneers who had gone before her. Hopefully one day that can be remedied. For that reason, I feel it very fitting to end with a quote from Deliliah herself, taken from a letter she wrote in 1932 to Dr W. E. B. Du Bois, a fellow black historian and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

“We are deserving of receiving not only human treatment, but equal rights with other United States Citizens”.[12]


[1] Jill Cowan, ‘The Pioneering Black Historian Who Was Almost Erased From History’, The New York Times, 7 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/us/black-history-month-delilah-beasley.html

[2] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’, California State University, Northridge, 19 February 2019, https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/delilah-beasley; ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland, http://artsinoakland.org/articles/delilah-beasley/

[3] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’

[4] Ibid; Lena M. Wysinger, ‘In Memoriam- Miss Delilah L. Beasley’, Oakland Tribune, 14 Oct 1934

[5] Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[6] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’

[7] ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[8] Ibid

[9] Lena M. Wysinger, ‘In Memoriam- Miss Delilah L. Beasley’

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid; ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[12] Beasley, Delilah L. (Delilah Leontium), 1871-1934. Letter from Delilah L. Beasley to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 16, 1932. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

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