Monthly Archives: February 2015

Frances Naftalin – Reader, Leader, Feminist and Friend

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

 These words of Rosalynn Carter well reflect many of the women who have shaped our state’s social, political and cultural environment. The stories of some of these women stand out as subtle threads woven into the fabric of Minnesota’s political history.   Women such as Joan Mondale, Nancy Latimer, Arvonne Fraser and Muriel Humphrey were wives of powerful political leaders; each in her own life embodies Carter’s truth that leadership should be judged by the movement of the minds and hearts of people to “where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

One such leader, Frances Healey Naftalin, died recently died at age 95 in her Minneapolis home. She was memorialized on Valentine’s Day by loving friends and family. Arvonne Fraser, who shared with Naftalin the experience of being typecast as the dutiful wife of an elected official, spoke for many:

She didn’t parade her magnificent intelligence; it simply demonstrated itself in conversations. She read widely, deeply and intensely, and discussed what she was reading about, or had read, with respect and admiration for the author or the subject when it was relevant to discussion. Without condescending to all of us lesser minds, she educated us as she talked, never really realizing that was what she was doing.

Fraser described early politicking for women candidates with Naftalin, recalling how “people listened when Fran talked whether it was about children, politics, the fine arts, her mother…whatever. She neither wasted nor minced words.”

Many of us knew Frances Naftalin best as a peerless advocate for libraries. She served with distinction as President of the Board of the Minneapolis Public Library and was appointed by President Carter to serve on the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. As a member of NCLIS she served with distinction during a turbulent era marked by political challenges to the appointment of some of the Commissioners, including Naftalin – all survived the tempest in the NCLIS teapot, though it did involve Fran’s having to defend her appointment before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.

It was in her role as a member of NCLIS that Fran quietly maneuvered one of her most subtle strategies to “move people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” In 1982, when the information age was more a gleam in the eye than a reality, NCLIS sponsored a national study on Public Sector Private Sector Interaction in the Delivery of Information Services. The fledgling information industry managed to skew the final report to the benefit of corporate interests that effectively squelched the public’s right to know and the role of public agencies, including libraries. (

Commissioner Naftalin entered a minority response and grudgingly supported the report on the explicit condition that NCLIS follow up with discussions of the volatile issue of “public sector/private sector interaction.” Naftalin chaired the opening session of the first response, held in Minnesota, sponsored by Metronet and funded by the Minnesota Humanities Commission. At that session she introduced Harlan Cleveland, Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, who chose the occasion to elaborate on his prescient theory of the unique characteristics of “Information as a Resource.” ( Cleveland’s formulation reshaped the premise of the report and the offered a new lens through which to view and assess the properties of information as a resource.

Aware that the information and communications environment was poised for massive change, Naftalin had once again proved herself “a great leader (who) takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

Reflecting on her early days of politicking with Fran, Arvonne Fraser wrote these words which were read at the memorial service for her friend: “Activists we were…In many ways, we were feminists – the suffragists had preceded us; we were just a bit ahead of the mid-20th century women’s movement.”

Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives – Women’s History Month 2015

When the women of Sonoma County, California celebrated the first Women’s History Week in 1978, there were 18 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and three in the U.S. Senate.   In 1987 when Congress passed the resolution designating March as Women’s History Month, there were 24 women in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. As the 114th Congress fumbles its way into its First Session, there are 84 women in the House and 20 in the Senate. Women now comprise less than 20% of the institution that makes the laws of the land – the laws that affect 100% of the American public, including women and girls.

Statistically, there is some measure of progress.   Still, as the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month suggests, the data are just one measure of reality.

The theme “weaving the stories of women’s lives” inspired me to go back into my own history, to untangle and thus trace the threads of how individual women – often women I know only from a distance – have influenced my learning, shaped the institutions that matter to me, made me realize my own ideas and values.

Reflecting on their stories is one way to remember that the fabric of each of our lives is created by the interweaving of some fascinating threads. These are the stories I hope to write and  post during Women’s History Month.

World Storytelling Day 2015 – The power of stories shared & stories still untold


Until you experience a storyteller who can take to you to worlds away, bring you back changed, you don’t know the power of Storytelling. Until you listen, totally focused on the words making movies in your head, you don’t understand the need for stories. When you are breathing the same air, in a huge group that is laughing in harmony, you can know the joy created in story. When your thoughts are those of peace, gifted to you in story, you can feel your heart beat with understanding. We all need the power, joy, laughter, harmony and peace given through Stories. Kathleen Mavournin, Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association

In the summer 2014 issue of Yes! Magazine, Editor Sarah Van Gelder asks the question “What’s Your Story?” as an introduction to an issue related to stories and storytelling. “If you want to understand people”, she writes, “ask for their stories. Listen long enough, and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

Van Gelder quotes the iconic George Gerbner, who wrote, “We experience the world through stories. Whoever tells the stories of a culture defines the terms, the agenda, and the common issues we face.”   In this unique issue of Yes! the essayists tell stories that remind the reader that “new voices are being heard, and….their stories are transforming our culture” – from a culture based on corporate greed, violence and the partisan impasse to a world in which the voices of the people can make a difference.

Each year, on March 20, the voices of the people and of the ages are heard on World Storytelling Day. The date is set to concur with the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and the first day of autumn equinox in the southern hemisphere. The idea is for people around the globe to share and listen throughout the 24 hour day to stories in different languages and different settings.

World Storytelling Day has its roots in the Scandinavian nations that reached across borders to share stories in the early 1990’s. Begun in Sweden, the Scandinavian storytelling web network spread to Norway, Denmark, Finland and Estonia. The idea caught on and spread to Canada and other nations around the world so that today World Storytelling Day  is indeed a global celebration.

Clearly, the history of storytelling is as old as humankind. Before there was written communication people had to rely on the memory of the storyteller to pass on the experiences, the ideas, the wisdom, the skills of people. Stories were told to explain confusing events, including disasters that shaped a people’s heritage. Stories may be myths, legends, fairy tales, trickster stories, fables, ghost tales, hero stories, adventures – any oral rendition of the common themes that build community and define humanity.

The theme for World Storytelling Day 2015 is “Wishes.” Storytellers will explore the inclusive theme from their own perspectives and with their own listeners. In this community, one collaboration has already come together to share “Seven Stories I Wish They’d Tell about the War in Vietnam.”

The evening features storytellers/musicians, most of whom are veterans: Dick Foley, Gerald Ganann, Catrina Huynh-Weiss, Steve McKeown, Gary Melom, George Mische, and Chante Wolf. The presenters will share the stories that continue to be ignored or intentionally omitted – stories of the Gulf of Tonkin, Kent State, My Lai, draft card burning, Dr. King’s Vietnam speech, the Fulbright hearings, the impact of the war on the Vietnamese people, rape in Vietnam, homeless veterans and the scourge of Agent Orange.

The free and open event is set for World Storytelling Day, March 20, 2015, 7:00 p.m. at Macalester Plymouth United Church, 1658 Lincoln in St. Paul. Sponsors include Macalester Plymouth United Church Peacemakers and Making Meaning of Vietnam; Veterans for Peace Chapter 27 has endorsed the program.   Questions: Contact Larry Johnson 612 747 3904 or Johnson was a founder and early supporter of World Storytelling Day in the U.S.




Minnesota Superstar Toni Stone Broke BB Records and Barriers

The name and fame of Twin Cities native Toni Stone are well documented in the annals of baseball history. She is an honored member of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and of the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Sudafed International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In fact, St. Paul celebrated “Toni Stone Day” on March 6, 1990, and even named a field after the hometown heroine. The Toni Stone field is part of the Dunning Sports Complex in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. (

One wonders, though, if, in this post-Title IX era, young girls in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul or students at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, know the story of this baseball superstar who broke records and shattered barriers for women and girls in sports.

Marcenia Lyle (Toni) Stone was born July 17, 1921, in West Virginia. A decade later she and her family joined the Great Migration to the North. They moved to St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood where Marcenia’s parents opened a small business. Even as a young girl Marcenia showed her talent as a natural athlete. She was the first girl to hold a spot on the high-powered St. Peter Claver boys’ baseball team and played for the girls’ Highlex Softball Club in St. Paul. Later, as a student at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, she lettered in track, high jump and softball.

At age 15 fell in love with baseball when she attended a baseball camp at Lexington Park, home of the St Paul Saints. When former Major Leaguer Gabby Street who ran the camp told Toni that the camp was for only boys, Stone protested and Street finally allowed her to stay. She so impressed Street that he advised her to continue to play the game. In short order she gave up her other athletic interests to focus on her first love – baseball.

Marcenia dropped out of school at 16 to earn money playing for the Twin City Colored Giants, a men’s semi-pro barnstorming team that took her throughout the Midwest and Canada. She moved on from there to play with Al Love’s American Legion championship team.

World War II upset the world order; baseball was no longer a national priority. Marcenia moved to San Francisco where her sister Bunny and her husband had resettled to join the military. Toni settled in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco where she eventually met her future husband, Aurelious Pescia Alaberga, a man forty years her elder. Alaberga had been raised in San Francisco, one of the first black officers in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

With some reluctance, perhaps, Alaberga encouraged his wife to join the previously all-male American Legion Junior League baseball team. It was at that point that Marcenia shaved a decade from age, claiming to be 16 not 26, a birth date she maintained throughout her career. It was also at this point that Marcenia became Toni Stone.

For a short time Toni played with the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro League, the league founded by African-American pitcher, Andrew “Rube” Foster. She left the team when she failed to receive the pay she had been promised. Toni moved on to the Black Pelicans. Not long thereafter the League itself faced a crisis when Jackie Robinson broke the color line by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Black fans lost interest in the Negro League, which were soon faced with diminished crowds and financial woes.

At the same time, as Black players moved to the Major Leagues, there were opportunities for unique players, including women. In 1949 Toni joined the New Orleans Creoles, the Negro League’s minor league team.   In 1953 she became the first woman to play in the Negro Major Leagues when she joined the Indianapolis Clowns, replacing 2nd baseman Hank Aaron who had moved up to join the Milwaukee Braves. To some extent, Toni was signed because she was a woman, thus a rarity and an “attraction.”

From all accounts players with the Negro Major Leagues led a rough life. To up the gate they were forced to play long seasons, many in the South where Jim Crow was still the law of the land. Trailblazer that she was, Toni met with opposition and outright scorn. By some accounts, she was proud of the fact “that the male players were out to get her. She would show off the scars on her left wrist and remember the time she had been spiked by a runner trying to take out the woman standing on second base….Even though she was part of the team, she was not allowed in the locker room. If she were lucky, she would be allowed to change in the umpire’s locker room. Once, Stone was asked to wear a skirt while laying for sex appear, but she would not do it.” (Wikipedia)

Still she was a contributor to the team with a lifetime batting average of .243, including a hit off Satchel Paige.  She played one season with the Clowns, and then moved in 1954 to the Kansas City Monarchs; she retired from the Monarchs the following season because of lack of playing time.

After her short career Toni returned to Oakland to care for her ailing husband who died in in 1987 at the age of 103. Toni settled in Alameda where she continued to play semi-pro ball well into her 60’s. She died in 1996 at the age of 75. In October 2000 Toni Stone was honored as the Negro Leaguer of the Month (Pitch Black Baseball), which notes that, although Toni had two strikes against her – she was black and a woman. Still, “Stone made the best of things even though she often ate alone in the team bus and knew that many of her teammates resented her. Stone always took the high road, though, and remembered years later, ‘Some of ‘em used to give me a hard time, but I didn’t pay them no mind. They didn’t mean any harm!’”

Record books reflect Toni Stone’s stats, and there are books, including Martha Ackmann’s biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Baseball in the Negro Leagues and references in Allen Pollock and James A. Riley’s Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his great black teams.

Stone’s life is also depicted in an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center and a number of MHS programs for specific audiences prepared by the MHC staff; details of the MHC offerings are available at


Bridget “Biddy” Mason: Slave, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist

Noting the recent spate of blog posts celebrating the lives of African American women, a dear friend in Los Angeles sent me a note asking if I knew anything of the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Best known to Angelinos who enjoy the urban park that celebrates her legacy Biddy Mason was an unschooled slave woman who became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist – a legend in her adopted Los Angeles.

The brief story that my friend shared inspired a quest to learn about this truly unique woman. A quick search unearthed resources in abundance.

Bridget (she had no surname) was born a slave in 1818, probably in Georgia. She was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his bride Rebecca Crosby who owned a plantation in Logtown, Mississippi.

During this era missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) were proselytizing in the area. In the mid 1840’s Smith converted to Mormonism and decided to join the Mormon community being established by Brigham Young in the Utah Territory. This meant that, in spite of advice to free his slaves prior to the mission, Smith relocated his entire household, including slaves. In the case of Biddy and the other slaves, it meant a 1700 mile walk from Mississippi to Utah, a grueling trek during which Biddy prepared meals, herded the cattle, and served as midwife, a skill she had learned from other slaves. She also cared for her own three daughters who may well have been fathered by Smith.

In 1851 Smith moved his household again, this time in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California, where a new Mormon community was under development.  History generously suggests that Smith was unaware that California was a free state in which slavery was forbidden. In any event, Smith kept his retinue intact with no apparent challenge.

Freed slaves knew their rights, however. Along the way Biddy met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free blacks, who urged her to legally contest her slave status once the caravan reached the free state of California. Biddy received additional encouragement from free black friends, Robert and Minnie Owens whose son Charles Owens was romantically involved with Biddy’s daughter Ellen.

Meanwhile, slaveholder Smith concluded that he and his household of slaves were not safe in free California. In January 1856 Smith made a plan to relocate to Texas, a slave state. Robert Owens, a respected Los Angeles business owner, informed the LA County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held and transported. The Sheriff quickly gathered a posse that apprehended Smith’s Texas-bound wagon train in Cajon Pass, California. Smith was prevented from leaving the state.

With the help of these new friends, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of thirteen women and children. LA District Judge Benjamin Ignatius Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of of the illegally held slaves, citing California’s 1850 Constitution that prohibited slavery. At the last minute, Judge Hayes granted freedom to Biddy, her three daughters and ten other women and children who had been enslaved by Smith.

It was on the occasion of her emancipation that Bridget assumed the surname Mason, the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Mayor of San Bernardino; Biddy had known and worked with members of Lyman’s household. Biddy Mason and three daughters moved to LA where they accepted the invitation to live with the Owens family. In time Biddy’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens while Biddy established herself as a highly regarded nurse and midwife and served as a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin, a prominent LA physician.

A frugal money manager, Biddy saved enough to purchase property at 331 South Spring Street where she built a clapboard house in which she lived until her death in 1891.   She was one of the first black women to own land in LA. In 1884 she sold a portion of the land; she had purchased for $250 in 1866 and sold it in 1884 for $1500. Entrepreneur that she was, Mason built a commercial building on the remaining land and began renting office space. This was her entry into the highly profitable real estate boom in an exploding LA economy. Over the years Mason acquired many parcels of LA property; as most of her investments became prime urban real estate Biddy, the ex-slave, acquired considerable wealth. It must have been in the genes because her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, eventually became the richest African-American in LA.

Still, the prosperous Mason was better known and is remembered not as an entrepreneur but as a philanthropist. From her residence on Spring Street she fed newcomers and the homeless, welcomed the poor of all races, supported churches, schools and provided aid to inmates she visited regularly. She was lovingly known as “Grandma” or “Auntie” Mason.

In 1872 Mason and her son-in-law Charles Owens founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black church in LA. The church still stands at 2270 South Harvard Street.

Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in LA. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988, her grave was marked at an unveiling ceremony attended by the Mayor, other city dignitaries, and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

November 16, 1989, was declared Biddy Mason Day.

Today the life and generosity of Bridget Mason are commemorated in a memorial and art installation in the Broadway Spring Center, near the Spring Street residence where Biddy had lived since 1866. Biddy Mason Park, designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, features courtyards and walkways and a fountain made of water pipes. A mural in the art park includes inscriptions, images of deeds and maps, and a photograph of Bridget “Biddy” Mason.

Children’s voices tell the story of North Dakota’s oil boom

This week’s massive train derailment and oil spill in West Virginia is a horrific example of the ignored consequences of the oil boom – a tragic catastrophe that commands explosive headlines and overwhelming videos of the disaster. We learn that Bakken shale mined in North Dakota is currently producing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day and that 90% of that oil is shipped by rail, making up 10% of U.S. energy production.

We who live closer to the source of the oil cannot ignore the human impact of those men and women who have resettled themselves and their families in hopes of finding work in the oil fields. Constantly reminded by the spike in rail traffic thundering through our countryside, our towns and cities, we consider the source. The media remind of the living conditions and the hardship of our neighbors just across our Western border. On a clear day we can almost see the rigs.

A 20-minute documentary produced by a young filmmaker may heighten our awareness. In recent days “White Earth,” the creative documentary written, directed, photographed and produced by J. Christian Jensen, has been nominated for an Oscar in the short subject category. This is just the most recent of a lengthy roster of awards for the low budget film that dares to tackle an “incendiary” subject – the human impact of the North Dakota oil boom.

“White Earth” was actually Jensen’s thesis project for his Master of Fine Arts in documentary film and video at Stanford University. The film is shot in the real town of White Earth, a town in the northern part of North Dakota that has grown overnight from a population of 100 to over 500.

Jensen’s unique approach is to tell the story as seen by the children whose lives have been disrupted by the boom. The voices are those of three children and an immigrant mother. One of the children moved to White Earth because his father got a job in the oil fields – he can’t go to school because of missing custody papers.

Another young girl has always lived in White Earth where her quiet life has been torn asunder by the influx of workers and their families. She looks forward to her old age when, she hopes, the oil rigs will be gone and White Earth will have settled back to the quiet town it was. Yet another voice is that of Elena, a Mexican-American girl whose family has been uprooted from their home in California.

Jensen describes his intention thus: “My hope was that by focusing on these different stories that people from all sides of the political spectrum would be able to find a common point of empathy.” Jensen makes no effort to take sides in the politics of the boom.

Learn more about the video:   Jensen has recently completed a contract with Vimeo to expand access to “White Earth.” The video can be rented for $3.99 or purchased for $7.99




Mattie Clark, African American storyteller who “followed her sacred calling”

Storytelling is a practice as old as human history – it is storytelling that has preserved and passed down much of the history of humankind. Still, it is not until more recent times that the storytelling has received its deserved respect as performance art. One African American woman who elevated the art of storytelling to its current status is Mattie Clark.

Mattie Clark’s story is one that calls out to be heard during Black History Month. Because Mattie died at the age of 69 in 2010 it remains to others to celebrate her life contributions.

Born in Bourbon, Mississippi Mattie May Anthony spent her early years living a hardscrabble life in a very large and poor Black family. At age 15 she married 19-year-old Danny Robinson Clark. The young couple moved to Minneapolis in the 60’s.

Always a storyteller in her soul Mattie began a lifelong of with others the stories about African American culture that she had learned from her grandmother. Storytelling filled much of her day as a volunteer teacher’s aide in the Minneapolis schools. In time, sharing those stories became her full time profession. She told stories to children in schools and libraries, to the elderly in nursing homes, to homeless people, corporate executives and academics.   She was frequently sponsored by the Minnesota History Center, the Science Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mattie was also active in the early days of the Twin Cities Black Storytellers Alliance, a collaboration that remains an active member of the National Association of Black Storytellers. NABS, founded by storytellers Mary Carter Smith of Baltimore and Linda Goss of Philadelphia, was incorporated in 1990. The founding of the organization reflects the emerging interest in storytelling as a means of sharing the experience of African Americans, a movement of which Mattie was very much a part.

In 2006 Mattie was honored as an Esteemed Elder by NABS; the prestigious Award honors the memory of Hugh “Brother Blue” Morgan, a Harvard professor and storytelling icon who shared thoughts that echo the work of Mattie Clark: “If you are not here to change the world, if you just want to get rich, you can laugh all the way to the bank – Me, I’m better off here in the street with my honor, with my sacred calling.”

Those who speak or write of Mattie Clark recall the tough jobs she took on to supplement her modest income from her beloved storytelling. At other times Mattie told stories in other media. In the 1980’s she wrote a column known as “Diamond in the Rough” for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder where she shared good news from and about her Minneapolis community. Mattie’s voice was also heard on radio station KMOJ where she hosted a gospel music program and interviewed guests who told stories of their neighborhoods and programs.

Without exception, everyone recalls her laugh and the “sunshine” she shared with all around her, including her husband and four children

The one person who best remembers Mattie Clark is her beloved husband of 53 years. Danny Robinson Clark is a professional actor who has appeared on stages from Broadway to the Guthrie, most recently in the Guthrie production of Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House. Danny Clark shared his memories of Mattie in a reflection recorded in January 2014; his loving memories of Mattie are captured in one of a series of interviews with Danny videotape by Peter Shea for the Bat of Minerva series.

Danny’s is a poignant tribute to a magnificent African American woman who “followed her sacred calling” to share the stories of Black Americans with all who would take time to listen. Take time to view and listen to Danny’s reflections on the life he shared with Mattie Clark. ( The interview is one of four in the series; each can be streamed, audio or podcast video.   View them all or scroll to Mattie’s story recorded January 28, 2014. )




Pullman National Monument – A City’s Vision Realized

You may have heard or read that President Obama will be in Chicago this week, in part to designate Chicago’s Pullman district a national monument.   The South Side area will become part of the National Park Service, Chicago’s first nationally recognized monument.

Chicago pride is appropriately at peak, as reflected in these recent updates from the Chicago press:

A recent Poking Around blog post offers more background on the robust and unique history reflected in today’s Pullman community.

The Pullman National Monument promises to be a fascinating destination historic site that features both present-day charm and an opportunity for visitors to learn about  an era and a pivotal event  in American  labor history.

Congratulations to the Chicago residents, preservationists and leaders who have much to celebrate this week.


Delilah Leontium Beasley, Self-directed researcher, Journalist, historian of African American History and Trailblazers

Delilah Leontium Beasley (1867-1934) deserves special recognition during African American History Month. Many of the stories of Black Americans, particularly Black Women, would have been lost to history without her bold and self-directed work.

Though most of her professional life was spent in California, Beasley was born in Cincinnati.  She published her first piece in the Cleveland Gazette at the age of twelve, then wrote a column for the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer. She also worked at the Colored Catholic Tribune during her teens.

Life for Beasley changed dramatically when her parents both died when Delilah was still a teen. In order to support her younger siblings she took a job as a domestic for a local judge, then moved to Chicago where she had a successful career as a domestic, then hairdresser, then as a successful masseuse.   During all of this time she pursued her interest in the history of Blacks, particularly African Americans in California.

Her focused interest in the history of Blacks in California led her to move to Oakland in 1910 where she immersed herself in her passion for historical research. Working as a nurse and therapist, she began her independent research in the archives at Berkeley where she delved into black newspapers, recorded oral histories and stories. In 1915 Beasley began writing a weekly column. “Activities among Negroes” in the Oakland Tribune, a column that reflected the surge of public interest in African-American rights and history that was fueled by the furor over Birth of a Nation.

Beasley continued her independent study of historical and archival research. She sought out archival resources, including personal papers and diaries and conducted oral interviews with older Black Americans. In 1919 she published her research in a monumental history entitled The Negro Trail Blazers of California. The groundbreaking work chronicled the everyday lives and contributions of hundreds of Black Californians from pioneer days up to the early 20th Century. One unique feature of Beasley’s research was her emphasis on the strong role that women played in California history; the book includes several African American women whose stories might otherwise have been lost to history.

Beasley biographer, Lorraine J. Crouchett, writes that “the undertaking was extraordinarily difficult. Beasley found that Black Californians had no history; their records had been discarded from the collections that documented the state’s development. Yet in reproducing the words and photographs cherished by individuals, she caught their humanity as no one before her had done. Nonetheless, she was never completely accepted as a historian. While they seemed proud of her work, neither Black or white writers included her on any list of historians, nor has anyone before me attempted to examine her life and works with any thoroughness.”  Lorraine J. Crouchett, Delilah Leontium Beasley: Oakland’s crusading journalist. El Cerrito, CA: Downey Place Publishing House, Inc. 1990.

In her role as journalist, researcher and concerned citizen Beasley reported the news and did not hesitate to share her personal opinion on the issues of the day. Her overall effort was to promote a positive image of the Black community in the nation and in Oakland. She worked aggressively with the faith community, the NAACP and the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers to support efforts to reduce racist language and activities. In the 1930s she was a leader in the community struggle to pass anti-lynching legislation. She also shed the spotlight on African American leaders she wanted her readers to know.

Beasley’s involvement with the 1929 celebration of Negro History Week, established just four years earlier by Carter G. Woodson who also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The organization and Negro History Week were both a response in part to the Harlem Renaissance and the era’s national prominence of writers including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Dubois. According Beasley’s “News among Negroes” column, librarian Barbara Coles of the Oakland Free Library invited Beasley to prepare a list of books by American-American authors; Beasley published Cole’s supportive rationale: “The public library has a vital and important place in the scheme of adult education. Unrestricted by any curriculum, unhampered by any single purpose, we have been able to accumulate all that is known of ancient or modern culture. Supported by taxation, and no dependent upon individual support, we have been able to put at the disposal of every member of the community the resources which make possible understanding not only of ourselves, and of our forebears, but of our neighbors. We diffuse through our channels a survey of the historical significance of many peoples, the undertaking of which surely cannot but help to advance that great brotherhood of man, which will outlaw the sword and uplift the banner of the Price of Peace.”  Oakland Tribune, “Activities Among Negroes,” August 25, 1951. Quoted in Crouchett, p. 53

Those words must have convinced Beasley that her research and journalistic efforts had borne fruit – and that the stories of the Negro Trailblazers of California – and the hundreds of Americans of whom she had written over her lifetime, would live on.

Beasley continued her “News among Negroes” throughout her life. She died August 18, 1934 in Oakland. She is buried at Saint Mary’s Cemetery where a monument has now been erected to her memory.  Friends who attended her funeral 80 years ago were asked to remember Beasley by reciting this pledge:  “Every life casts its shadow, my life plus others make a power to move the world.  I, therefore, pledge my life to the living word of brotherhood and mutual understanding between the races.”





Delilah Pierce- Visionary artist and educator

Black history month is a great time to connect or reconnect with people who have made a difference – sometimes in my own life.   It’s a chance to learn more about great people I’ve known or known about – people about whom I have always wanted to learn more.

Delilah W. Pierce is one such person. When I was a neophyte librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College Mrs. Pierce was an art teacher. What I knew was that Delilah Pierce was an elegant – classy – soft-spoken lady, a loyal member of Phi Delta Kappa, who had been chosen to join a group of business leaders, educators and clergy to tour Europe and Africa, including Ethiopia, Nigeria and other nations still little known to Americans. What I knew best was that Ms Pierce labored without a proper classroom or adequate supplies to share her love of art. I knew Ms Pierce as a teacher who shared her vision with countless future teachers who attended DCTC, the woefully under-funded public institution that operated under the thumb of the United States Congress….

Ignoring the conditions, Ms Pierce embraced her role as educator with a spirit of hope that she shared generously with students and faculty alike.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Delilah Pierce was highly regarded in the world of African American artists – a world as yet unknown to many American art lovers. I discovered Ms Pierce the painter on a stroll down the C&O Canal near Georgetown when I happened upon her studio and gallery. Her paintings were everywhere – magnificent depictions of seacoasts and rural landscapes that reflected New England more than the banks of the Potomac…. For the first time, I saw Delilah Pierce, the artist, a woman highly regarded by colleagues and critics, a woman I had never known in the uniquely dreary setting of DCTC.

Born in 1904 in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC Ms Pierce knew segregation, racial tension, rampant injustice. She also knew activism, including the rise of labor unions, evolving housing patterns, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Her biographer writes that “the experience of such challenges did not taint or restrain her spirit. Inspired by the concept of freedom and equity, her art reflects an expansion for traditional African American heritage art. …In many ways she liberated herself by capturing the beauty of the New England and European coastal landscapes….To Delilah New England was not only a northern American location, it was a place where African Americans could enjoy and exhale from the ugliness of the American South.”

One of her biographers writes that “Delilah captured what was beautiful, simple, and innocent in the world.” Art critic Judith Means adds that “the way she perceives the world, with joy and optimism, and the stunning clarity of her finely-developed aesthetic sense are integral not only to her character but also to the vivid visual textures of her work.”

I never really got to know Delilah Pierce, the artist; I knew her as a colleague in the challenge to share the joy of learning and beauty with young people for whom hope was elusive and racial injustice was immediate.

It is delayed joy for me to know that I can visit her work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Modern American Art, the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Smith-Mason Gallery of Art and other sites. Of even greater joy is the knowledge that Ms. Pierce’s work is also on display at the University of the District of Columbia, a major institution built on the ashes of DCTC. Before Delilah Pierce’s death in 1992 that institution awarded Miss Pierce an honorary doctorate, a token award for a grand woman who did not hesitate to share her immense talent with some of the District’s most deserving students.

To learn more about Delilah Pierce, the woman and the artist, visit her website Or find her story on Facebook or twitter. The photographs of her paintings tell the story far better than words.