By Sean Eads
Californians may know about Delilah L. Beasley. After all, she was a major historian of the African American experience in the Golden State, publishing her results in the landmark book Negro Trailblazers of California (1919), and was also the first Black woman to become a columnist for a major city newspaper when she joined the staff of the Oakland Tribune in 1915. Delilah lived a life immersed not just in journalism, but massage therapy and bodywork as well. She has in some quarters been called the first African American massage therapist. While this may or may not be accurate, it’s fair to say Delilah Beasley is among the earliest and most prominent examples of African American massage practitioners.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1871, Delilah always seemed destined for a writing life. She was first published in the Cleveland Gazette when she was 12. The Cincinnati Enquirer published another column by her when she was 15. But her writing career was interrupted by the death of her parents in her mid-teens. She sought a variety of jobs to support herself, including the sort of domestic work that so often came to dominate the lives of Black women in an era that offered them few options.
Delilah, however, found a meaningful escape route by becoming a massage therapist. As many people after her have discovered, becoming a massage and bodywork practitioner was a terrific alternative to the unrewarding jobs available to her. Considering massage therapy had only been introduced into the United States in the 1850s, Delilah’s decision shows the same advanced forward thinking that would come to characterize her political activism. It might also demonstrate the profession’s early embrace of Black practitioners, who remain underrepresented in the contemporary massage industry.
It’s difficult to ascertain much of Delilah’s early life before her rise as a journalist in the early 20th century, when she was already in her late 40s. The most comprehensive biography of her, Delilah Leontium Beasley: Oakland’s Crusading Journalist, is just under 70 pages long and focuses on the latter part of her life. But she practiced as a massage therapist for several years before that career shift. Scant primary documents exist to let us pinpoint where she studied and who her mentors were. We know she began her massage studies in Chicago. She then returned to Ohio and did formal course work in hydrotherapy and nursing. Notably, she also studied medical gymnastics, an early form of physical therapy that originated in Sweden and came to prominence in the US during the 1850s.
Like many massage therapists today, Delilah tried her practice in a variety of settings, ranging from high-society spas to private clients. At one point she lived in New York, where she worked at the Buffalo Sanitarium, specializing in providing head and scalp massages to pregnant women. Later, she became the head massage therapist at a Michigan resort.
In an online interview with Dorothy Lazard, the recently retired head librarian at the Oakland History Center, it’s noted that Delilah actually ended up in Berkley, California, in 1910 because a former client asked her to come out to continue assisting with physical therapy. In this way, her work as a massage therapist brought her back to her deep love of writing and passion for social justice, both of which found their ultimate fruition in California. She began a steady correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois, where they spoke of their mutual dedication to opposing all instances of segregation. Her therapeutic background made her particularly incensed when she discovered Black nursing students in Oakland were being given substandard places to rest between shifts. As she notes: “Instantly I protested why student nurses of any race should impair their health by resting in a room underground …”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Delilah’s life is how emblematic her early career choices map onto the larger cultural debates in the African American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Delilah was denied the chance at any formal education due to racial bias and the death of her parents, and later became a strong supporter of Du Bois’s ideological rival, Booker T. Washington, who believed African Americans should focus less on classical education in favor of developing practical hands-on skills to secure jobs and economic security. In this sense, her decision to become a massage therapist, as it was understood at the time, fits very much into Washington’s vision of the surest path to success.
Though she seemed to abandon work as a massage therapist after 1915 to devote herself to journalism and public history, it seems obvious that her background made her forever mindful of the importance of African American bodyworkers. In her seminal book The Negro Trailblazers of California, for example, which covers hundreds of people ranging from politicians to military men, librarians, teachers, and writers, she makes sure to note the work of Lula Russell, “one of the most successful colored women practitioners of the art of massage” in the state. One suspects someone who lacked Delilah’s understanding of the role and importance of massage therapy might overlook Lula’s contributions.
If you’re interested in learning even more about this fascinating African American massage therapist and activist, you can review a panel discussion of her life and work conducted on January 28, 2022, here.
Sean Eads is a writer and reference librarian in Denver, Colorado. His first novel, The Survivors, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His third novel, Lord Byron's Prophecy, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. His website is seaneads.net.