Tag Archives: African American women

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 http://delilahwpierce.com/. Or find her story on Facebook or twitter. The photographs of her paintings tell the story far better than words.

Harriet Robinson Scott – A Tireless Quest for Emancipation

It was a couple of years ago when the Bloomington Human Rights Commission and its partners inaugurated the Dred and Harriet Scott Legacy of Courage and Freedom program that I became curious about Harriet Robinson Scott.   Black History Month 2015 inspires me to dig a bit to fill the gap in my learning – or my memory.

Harriet Robinson Scott was born a slave in Virginia in about 1815. Her owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent assigned to Fort Snelling circa 1820. In the early 1830’s Taliaferro brought teenager Harriet Robinson with him to Fort Snelling where she became a house servant, contrary to territorial law but allowed by military rules. Fort Snelling was a military fort and fur-trading outpost, well-known to today’s Minnesotans. Though Harriet lived with the slaves, she later based her claim to freedom in the Missouri courts in part on the fact that her having lived in a free territory while at Fort Snelling made her a free woman.

Born into slavery in Virginia about1799 Dred Scott was owned first by Peter Blow from St. Louis. Around 1830 Blow sold Dred to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Dred traveled to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory with Dr. Emerson.

Dred arrived at Fort Snelling in May 1836 with Dr. Emerson. There he worked as the personal servant to Dr. Emerson. Harriet would have been about 21 years old at this time; Dred Scott would have been about 36. Harriet and Dred were married in a civil ceremony in 1836 or 1837; officiating was Major Taliaferro who has also Justice of the Peace for the Fort. Marriage meant that Harriet became the property of Dr. Emerson and assumed duties as the property of the new Mrs. Emerson, Eliza Irene Sanford.

Pregnant but indentured, in April 1838 Harriet had to follow the Emersons when the doctor was transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. In a short time the Emersons relocated to St. Louis, then soon back to Fort Snelling. En route North Harriet gave birth on board the steamer Gipsey. Her first daughter Eliza Scott was thus born in free territory. Harriet stayed with Mrs. Emerson at Fort Snelling for two more years.

When Dr. Emerson was transferred to Florida in 1840 the Scott family was sent to St. Louis where they were hired out to work for other people while the Emersons collected their wages. In St. Louis Harriet gave birth to a second daughter, Lizzy.

In 1843 Dr. Emerson died suddenly leaving Dred, Harriet and their two daughters in the hands of his widow. Mrs. Emerson moved in with her proslavery father, Alexander, on his plantation in north St. Louis County. For the next three years, Harriet and Dred worked for other people while Mrs. Emerson collected their wages.

Then came the turning point in the Scotts’ lives. In 1846 Harriet Robinson Scott took legal action to claim her freedom. On April 6 of that year the couple filed separate petitions in the St. Louis Circuit Court to gain their freedom from Irene Sanford Emerson. The Scotts had friends in St. Louis who had been granted freedom if they had lived in free states. The hope was that the Scotts had a chance for freedom, based on their years living at Fort Snelling. When their cases came to trial in June 1847 they were dismissed on a technicality.

Though their lawyer requested a new trial, before that retrial took place Irene Emerson made arrangements for the Scotts to be under the custody of the sheriff of St. Louis County. There they remained for nine years, until March 1857; during all this time the sheriff was responsible for hiring them out and collecting and keeping their wages until the freedom suit was resolved.

After several delays, including a huge fire and a cholera outbreak, Harriet Scott’s case was heard in January 1850. The jury ruled in her favor….

Mrs. Emerson and her brother John A Sanford were disinclined to lose their valuable human property. Mrs. Emerson appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Before it came to trial, a decision was made to combine the cases of Harriet and Dred Scott, the understanding being that the outcome of the case would apply to Harriet and their two daughters. Harriet’s wait to be free continued.

Meanwhile, Cupid came to the rescue. Irene Emerson moved to Springfield, Mass where she met and married Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, an antislavery Congressman

Later, the groom claimed ignorance of his wife’s pending court case and of the fact that she owned slaves. The case was turned over to Mrs. Chafee’s brother, John Sanford. In March 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the right of slave owners, reversed the earlier ruling and rejected the Scotts’ plea for freedom.

The Scott’s were undeterred. In 1852 Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a supporter of the Scotts, hired Harriet from the sheriff.   Harriet worked for LaBeaume for $4 a month, Dred for $5 a month. Meanwhile, they continued their quest for freedom. Five years later, after moving the case through the Missouri courts to the Supreme Court, Harriet received a dreaded decision. On March 6, 1857, the court ruled that Harriet, Dred, Eliza and Lizzie Scott should remain slaves. Soon thereafter, when John Sanford died, Dr. Chaffee insisted that ownership of the Scott family be transferred to Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow, Dred Scott’s owner. Blow then freed the entire family.

Dred Scott lived as a free man for just one year. In 1858 he died of tuberculosis. Harriet worked as a “free Negro” laundress in St. Louis for many years. She died of “general disability” at age 71 on June 17, 1876. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a St. Louis cemetery for Black Americans.

The Dred and Harriet Scott Interpretive Plaques were unveiled two years ago. The Plaques and Dred Scott Playfield, originally dedicated by the City of Bloomington in 1971, are at 10820 Bloomington Ferry Road. For additional information contact the Bloomington Human Rights Commission (humanrights@bloomingtonMN.gov) or Bloomington Parks and Rec (parksrec@bloomingtonmn.gov)