In 1923, the Oakland Tribune started a groundbreaking new weekly column. "Activities Among Negroes" was authored by Delilah L. Beasley, a writer unwilling to waste even an inch of her column space. In her writing, Beasley not only bucked racist stereotypes by putting an emphasis on achievements in the African American community, but also managed to shine a light on the barriers that people of color—and women—faced in their everyday lives.
Even when she was writing about local issues, Beasley's vision was big picture. She had an instinct and understanding that her column had the potential to act as a direct line to both the white establishment, which could affect legal change, and the average white household, which might encourage a social one.
Beasley's expansive way of looking at the world undoubtedly helped her through an extraordinary number of hardships earlier in her life. Beasley was born September 9, shortly after the end of the Civil War, in either 1867 or 1871. In her teens, after both of her parents died, she and her four siblings were separated, and Beasley was forced to drop out of school and become a maid.
Determined to improve her position, Beasley studied hydrotherapy, medical gymnastics, and diagnosis, and became a massage therapist. Over the years, she worked in Chicago, New York, and Michigan, in both sanitariums and resorts, where, for a time, her specialty was giving head massages to pregnant women. She eventually settled in Berkeley in 1910 to work as a nurse for a former patient.
Despite her focus on physical therapy, Beasley's journalistic ambitions started when she was very young. Her work was accepted early on by both African American newspapers—like the Cleveland Gazette and the Oakland Sunshine—and white ones, like the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Straddling racial divisions in the press was not always easy for Beasley. After writing about the legendarily racist film Birth of a Nationfor the Oakland Tribune in 1915, she had to follow it up with a piece in Oakland Sunshine defending her decision to do so. “News of special interest to us as a people ought to be discussed in our own papers among ourselves," she wrote. "But, if a bit of news would have a tendency to better our position in the community, then it should not only be published in our own race papers, but in the papers of the other race as well.”
In 1919, Beasley self-published her book The Negro Trail-Blazers of California, which she had painstakingly researched over the course of nine years, prompted by history lessons she took at the University of California, Berkeley. Publishing the book herself was a risk that put her in debt for three years, but one that paid off in a larger sense, giving a voice to the black pioneers who had largely been written out of history. The book remains widely available today.
The determination Beasley showed in making sure her book was published and distributed carried over into every facet of her life. After being hired by the Oakland Tribune, aware of her unusual leverage, she routinely traveled around the country to persuade the editors of major newspapers everywhere to stop using racist language in print. She also stepped up to regularly speak at rallies and protests.
So determined was Beasley to advance the rights of African Americans and women, she joined just about every civic club she could find. These included the NAACP, the Alameda County League of Women Voters, the National Association of Colored Women, the Alameda County League of Colored Women Voters, the Public Welfare League of Alameda County, the League of Nations Association of the California Federated Women's Club, the Oakland Council of Church Women, and the Linden Center Young Women's Christian Association. On top of all that, she was also the President of the Far Western Inter-Racial Committee at the Oakland Museum.
A group of young black women in the East Bay were so inspired by Beasley's commitment to these groups, they formed one of their own, named after her. Rodger Streitmatter's 1994 book Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History notes that: "Members defined their purpose by choosing a word to correspond to each letter in the name D-E-L-I-L-A-H L. B-E-A-S-L-E-Y: Deeds Ever Lasting In Lending A Hand. Let’s Be Ever Alert Serving Lovingly Every Year."
Beasley's activism and simultaneous work as a reporter sometimes meant that she found herself having to report on her own achievements. On such occasions, her humility shone through her text. "There was introduced Friday January 27 in the California Legislature an Anti-Lunching Bill at the request of this writer," she wrote in 1933. "This writer knowing that the editors of the Oakland Tribune have for 20 years fought lynching through some editorials, decided to ask Assemblyman Wm. Knewland, assistant publisher of The Tribune to jointly introduce the bill with Assemblyman Frederick Madison Roberts of Los Angeles… Many women’s organizations endorsed the intentions of this writer to have this bill introduced.”
Beasley continued writing her column for the Tribune until her death in 1934. Buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in Oakland, Beasley's tombstone says simply: "Author and columnist, a native of Ohio and for 25 years, a resident of Oakland." Beasley's own words might have proved a more fitting tribute to her tenacious trailblazing. "Ever life casts its shadow," she once wrote, "my life plus others make a peer to move the world. I, therefore, pledge my life to the living world of brotherhood and mutual understanding between the races.”
For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.