I did not know that I’d be blogging during Women’s History Month this year because I wasn’t sure I had the bandwidth to do so. I barely made it through Black History Month while juggling freelance assignments, homeschooling a kindergartener and preschooler, and independently managing a home. But I could not simply stop learning about the Black history of California as a native Black Californian who spent nearly 43 years completely ignorant of it. Plus, I didn’t want to just barely scratch the surface of the many Black women who came to and from California throughout the several hundred years of its existence.
In my first Black History Month post, I mentioned Delilah Leontium Beasley because her 1919 book Negro Trail Blazers of California is what inspired me to make Black California history my BHM 2021 theme. However, with that mere mention I felt that it would be an injustice not to dedicate a post to Ms. Beasley herself. This woman spent nine years of her life investigating, researching, interviewing and composing an encyclopedia of California’s all-but-forgotten Black history and she did so without any formal training as a historian. Initially, her motivation for undertaking such a project was simply to learn for herself but as she delved deeper into her studies, the project took on a new meaning.
She wrote, “It was the original intention of the author to write a series of lectures, and not a history….After spending a day in talking over the pioneer history of the State with (Mrs. Annie Peters), the author decided to write a history and has spent five additional years in producing this work.” When I read that, I definitely recognized the feeling. In a world seemingly all too eager to forget or misinform on the contributions, discoveries, inventions and influence of people of African descent in America, it’s hard to learn the truth and not want to spread that truth as far and wide as one possibly can.
Ms. Beasley was born free in Ohio in 1867 just two years after the Civil War, during Reconstruction’s early days. What a time to be Black in America. In 1867, Blacks were given voting rights in Washington D.C. and Howard University was founded that same year. In 1868, the 14th amendment was ratified and South Carolina became the first and only American legislature to elect a majority Black body. In 1869, Ebenezer D. Bassett became America’s first Black elected diplomat as the minister to Haiti. And in 1870, the U.S. Congress saw its first Black elected Representative in Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina and its first Black elected Senator in Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi.
Maybe it was this Black history in the making that inspired Ms. Beasley to start writing for such newspapers as the Cleveland Gazette, the Catholic Tribune, and the Ohio State Tribune at the age of 12. Or maybe she just couldn’t help but write ( I understand that feeling too). From the history I read on her, she lost her parents during her teen years and supported herself as a nurse, maid and randomly a massage therapist. I don’t know if she ever experienced romantic love or marriage—if she ever knew pregnancy and miscarriage— because history has not revealed that but I’d like to think that writing was her therapy. I want to believe that writing and the research involved in the process fueled her in some magical, mystical way.
At age 43 she, along with others of her race who participated in the Great Migration, moved to the West. In Northern California, she continued writing for Oakland’s Black newspaper, the Oakland Sunshine and contributed to the Oakland Tribune. Those contributions eventually became a column focused on Black culture, politics, professional and academic successes, and civic concerns. She wrote about the slavery that persisted though California had joined the Union as a free state. She wrote about the Black men and women who became the first of their people to hold positions previously only held by Whites. She documented Black churches and their impact on political progress throughout the state, and on, and on, and on. Once again, I recognized the drive in her wanting to tell a new story about what it meant to be Black, wanting to blast away bias, ignorance and stereotypes with the click of a keyboard.
During her nearly 10-year journey to document California’s Black past in her book, she travelled all throughout the Golden State conducting interviews, attending events, and sifting through library stacks and public records. Even when she became severely ill in the last year of completing her book, her various friends and contacts came to her aid and saw that she finished it.
As I type this, I’m holding back emotion. I’ll be 43 this April, and I feel like I’ve just settled my personal farmstead in a new psychological frontier. I’m also in the process of documenting discoveries I’ve made about myself and what I’m capable of, wanting desperately for this personal experience to touch and inspire others, knowing that every moment that I have lived and what I have created in this life has not been in vain. I too have been blessed with a supportive network of friends and acquaintances who see value in what I’ve been doing and urge me to go on even when it feels really hard to do so. I think I can and will succeed because Ms. Beasley and so many others like her did.
Ms. Beasley didn’t just ride for Black folks or Black women. Thanks to her lobbying efforts with California State Assemblyman William F. Knowland (who was a publisher at the Oakland Tribune), California unanimously passed its first anti-lynching bill in 1933. As the majority of lynchings were committed against Native American, Asian American, and Latinx people, Ms. Beasley joined a long-standing tradition of California Black women who intentionally worked to create equality for everyone. I hope to join that number too one day.
The great journalist and historian died in 1934 of heart disease and hypertension in San Leandro and was buried at Oakland’s Saint Mary Cemetery. Since 2012, Ms. Beasley has been honored each year with a formal tea that “affords the community the opportunity to honor extraordinary Oakland citizens and institutions whose vision and leadership enrich, transform and empower our communities.” Put on by the Progressive Oakland Women Empowering Reform (P.O.W.E.R.), the tea usually takes place at Oakland’s Pardee Home Museum Gardens in the Fall.
Until next post, Happy Women’s History Month!