The turning point in the life of Dorothy Beam and the spark to her activism came after a landlord informed the retired Philadelphia guidance counselor that her only child had died.
With her grief in 1988 came many questions. She was proud that Joseph Beam had edited In the Life, the first anthology of black gay men’s writing, and that he was working on a second. But he hadn’t told her that he was HIV-positive, and she hadn’t fully understood his literary significance.
In her son’s well-organized correspondence were letters to black gay writers, including Audre Lorde, but also letters to people who were incarcerated. His files included interviews with organizer Bayard Rustin and poet Pat Parker, notes and manuscripts from his journalism and gay-rights work, among other writings. His network had been international.
“What she found was a world that she wasn’t aware of,” said Steven G. Fullwood, an archivist and documentarian who co-edited the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joe Beam’s Call. “She knew that his post-life was as valuable as his embodiment.”
Bereaved but determined, she famously vowed to bring the second anthology to fruition. She reached out to a friend of her son, the poet Essex Hemphill, to join her in carrying out Joseph’s vision. She invited Hemphill to move into her home in Overbrook so they could finish the project. Hemphill handled the editing, while Mrs. Beam worked as a project coordinator behind the scenes. The result, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, was published in 1991.
“My reason for finishing the book is that my son worked hard to finish it,” she told the Inquirer in 1992, later adding: “My son knew I’m a worker, I’m a go-getter. ... In his heart, my son knows I would finish his book. If there is a heaven, he’s there and he’s smiling.”
The 94-year-old activist died Dec. 26, from advanced colon cancer, according to her great-niece, Vaneeda Days.
She had been spending the winter of her life in Renaissance Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in West Philadelphia, with the effects of her dementia clouding her memory, but still sharing her characteristic sweetness. In the work she undertook to preserve the legacy of her son, a “beacon” in black gay literature, Mrs. Beam became a symbol for a mother’s love.
Guy Weston, a writer and genealogist, knew Joseph Beam, and remembers seeing Mrs. Beam at a reading at Giovanni’s Room for In the Life. It was December of 1986. He was gobsmacked to see her with her husband, Sun Beam, he said, because parents typically wouldn’t attend gay events at that time. He recalls seeing the pride in Mrs. Beam’s eyes.
The Inquirer visited Mrs. Beam as she was preparing to donate her son’s papers to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Her donation planted a seed in a way, Fullwood explained Wednesday, inspiring him as he founded and curated the Schomburg’s In the Life archive, dedicated to black LGBTQ experiences.
In 1991, then-Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode proclaimed Dec. 28 as Joe Beam Day. Marcus Borton, a Philly-based writer and sex educator, revived the day with friends in 2017. Borton thinks of the sacrifice it must have been for Mrs. Beam to donate the papers of a deceased child. Having access to the archives, he said, fleshed out his perception of Joseph Beam, someone, Borton said, who had been nearly deified.
Asked why Mrs. Beam’s story mattered so much, Borton spoke carefully. He didn’t want to put aside that many queer youths aren’t embraced. But Mrs. Beam challenged notions that black mothers can’t adore gay sons.
“I think Dorothy represents a beautiful and necessary narrative that exists that we don’t always see in the mainstream,” Borton said.
Days, her great-niece, said the mention of Joseph’s name would make his mother’s face light up without fail. Mrs. Beam, she said, was a people person who loved children, laughter, and reminiscing over family photographs. She also loved sewing and excelled at quilting.
Perhaps she refined her skills with a sewing needle as a teenager. Dorothy Beam, née Saunders, the child of Arthur Jenkins and Adeline Kinnard, was born in Statesboro-Bulloch County, Ga. When she was a young child, the family migrated to Philadelphia, where she was reared with her sister, Margaret. According to the Inquirer and Washington Post, her mother had a stroke that led the young Dorothy to leave high school and earn money as a seamstress for the Army to help their family.
She went to night school, then worked her way through Cheyney University, earning a degree. She went on to Temple, where she got her master’s degree in education. She married Sun Beam “in her early 30s,” according to the family. In 1954, she gave birth to Joseph, who was raised in West Philadelphia and sent to Catholic school in the suburbs.
Loved ones remember Mrs. Beam as a wellspring of support.
“Growing up and also experiencing her as an adult, [she was] definitely someone who loved people as they were,” Days said. “Super grounded and loving."
Joann Frasier Dasent met Mrs. Beam when Frasier Dasent had given a quilting presentation in 2005. Mrs. Beam told her she had something for her and invited her back to her apartment. Inside, Frasier Dasent became taken with the quilts that Mrs. Beam had crafted for babies with HIV.
Mrs. Beam pulled out a bag of neckties she had been collecting, and gave them to Frasier Dasent for material. Frasier Dasent was baffled, but had been raised to never turn away gifts. So she marinated on it. Eventually, with her friend Dorothy in mind, she started a quilting camp for girls and put the neckties to good use. She still wonders why Mrs. Beam had been saving them:
“What happens to a dream deferred? She had to have a dream of what she wanted to do with the ties,” Frasier Dasent said, then added through tears, “and she passed it on to me, and she passed it on to the girls.”
Quilting holds power, Frasier Dasent observed, because it’s therapeutic. There’s a peace in the process, and in a quilting circle, conversation flows. The craft is all about connection. The image of the quilts that Mrs. Beam made for babies with HIV still stays with her. They were beautiful, colorful, and gave her a different kind of feeling.
“They looked healing,” Frasier Dasent said. “There was something about what Ms. Dorothy did that had a special touch to it. That’s the only way I can explain.”