Tag Archives: African American Journalists

Speaking Truth to Power-Black Women Journalists Who Showed the Way

This post is actually an harmonic convergence — in part necessitated by a technology glitch that curtailed writing, more important inspired by these facts:   1) African American History Month ended before this post got written;  2) we are beginning Women’ History Month, and 3) the demonization of the American press calls for positive resistance, including some real facts about some of the nation’s most powerful journalists.  

The disrespectful treatment of April Ryan actually propelled this quest  to learn more about the role that African American women journalists have played in speaking truth to power.  What I have found is a wealth of strong women whose names are little known and whose stories I am eager to learn and share through Women’s History Month posts.

Great as she was, challenged to face a digital age in which social media are the information source of choice, Gwen Ifill built on the strength of her forebears.  These are but a few of the African American women who have paved a road that Ifill, April Ryan, Charlayne Hunter-Gault,  Joy Reid and countless others are challenged to walk in the digital age.

What I have learned inspires confidence in the strength of journalists supported by the prevailing power of the First Amendment and the essential role of this nation’s free press.  I’ve also learned that women have played an unheralded role as supporters of all Americans’ right to know.

Following are just some of the African American women journalists about whom I’m learning.  They are posted in no particular order — except for the first entry who gets dibs because she’s a Minnesota native.

Marvel Cooke (1903-2000) was born in Mankato!  Her family eventually moved to Prospect Park where they were the first African American neighbors in this Minneapolis community.  She was the first African American woman to work at a mainstream newspaper.  In the 1930’s she helped to create The Newspaper Guild, a labor group that actually conducted a lengthy strike at the Amsterdam News.  Cooke described her experiences working as a domestic in white homes under the title, I was a slave.  There is a helpful entry about Marvel Cooke on MNOpedia http://www.mnopedia.org/person/cooke-marvel-jackson-1901-2000  (note: I don’t understand the inconsistency of dates, but I’m working on it…)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was a lawyer, suffragist and journalist whose family fled to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.  There she edited a Canadian newspaper, the Provincial Freeman for Black refugees who fled to Canada.  As an advocate for suffrage for African American women  Cary founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in DC in 1888 a forebear of the women’s club/sorority movement. As the first woman student at Howard University Law School she was not permitted to graduate because DC did not admit women to the bar; she returned to Howard a decade later to receive her law degree at age 60.

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was a speaker/preacher before she was a journalist.  An ardent supporter of  African-American exceptionalism, always with religious theme, Stewart befriended William Lloyd Garrison, famous leader of the anti-slavery movement.  Garrison published several of her “Meditations” and speeches in The Liberator, the anti-slavery journal to which Stewart became a regular contributor.  One indication of Stewart’s legacy is the fact that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church USA commemorates her contributions, along with those of William Lloyd Garrison, every year on December 17.

Delilah Leontium Beasley (1871-1934) was a native of Cincinnati, Ohio.  She was a newspaper columnist for the Oakland Tribune.  Beasley was the first African American women to be published regularly in a major metro newspaper.  Beasley told the story of early California’s African American leaders  in The Negro Trail-Blazers of California, published in 1919.

Charlotte Bass (1874-1969) was the first African American women to own and operate a newspaper in the US.  Incidentally Bass was the first African American women to be nominated for Vice President of this country.   She was born on Valentine’s Day in 1874  and died at age 95 in 1969.  It is likely that she was the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper, the California Eagle, from 1912 until 1951.  In 1952 she was nominated for VP as a candidate of the Progressive Party.

Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983) was the first African American woman correspondent to receive White House credentials and the first Black female member of the Senate and House of Representative galleries.  Her story is told in her autobiography, Alice A. Dunnigan: A Black Woman’s Experience.

Ethel L. Payne,(1911-1991) “combined a passionate concern for the rights of Black people in all parts of the world with a talent for investigative reporting and writing.”  Granddaughter of a Pullman Porter  Payne’s early life in Chicago was fraught with financial concerns and racial discrimination.  In time she began writing for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper published as an expose of immoral and illegal practices within the U.S. military.  In time Payne traveled the world, reporting on African American troops, particularly in Vietnam.  She also worked for CBS as both a radio and TV commentator.

My hope is to learn and share more about these and other Black women journalists during Women’s History Month.  I would be grateful for readers’ suggestions of other women whose stories should be must be recorded and shared.

 

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.”