Delany, Bessie and Sadie
Bessie and Sadie Delany
Miss Sadie Delany, aged 106, and her sister, Dr. Bessie Delany, deceased at 104, had definite rules for living a long and healthy life. Both exercised every single day, whether they felt like it or not. Both always downed chopped garlic and cod liver oil at breakfast, and ate at least seven vegetables at lunchtime. The sisters also made a habit of living as stress-free a life as possible. They steadfastly refused to install a telephone, preferring more personal methods of communication. Other strategies for the sisters’ serenity were published in the Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom in 1994. The sisters also shared reminiscences of their family-the Delanys (their late father’s family) and the Logans, from their mother’s side. Gathered together in their book, Having Our Say, these stories offer a glimpse into the lives of pre-Civil War black Americans and portray the harmful effects of racism, from the late-19th-century Jim Crow laws to the lingering discrimination and distrust that affects some black-white relationships almost a half-century later.
Bessie and Sadie Delany were able to claim a direct link back to the days of slavery more than 135 years ago. Their father, Henry Delany, was a child of seven in 1865, when the end of the Civil War brought emancipation for his whole family. Educated at the North Carolina-based St. Augustine School, which had been established in 1867 to serve the needs of the newly-emancipated, he stayed on campus to become the institution’s vice-principal as well as the country’s first black elected Episcopal bishop. His role as a black intellectual demonstrated for the next generation how to reach professional goals despite the frustrating barriers of a segregated and discriminatory wider society.
He was no less in the vanguard as a parent. He brought his ten children up with deeply-rooted values, sheltered them from bigotry and danger as much as he could, and urged all of them to attend college at a time when most Americans, black or white, were content to forsake academic pursuits after high school. Possibly Henry’s wife had much to do with his success. The two met as students at St. Augustine’s school and shared the same general goals. The former Nanny James Logan efficiently buttressed her husband’s career by working as the school’s matron, and supported his child-rearing
Born Sarah (Sadie) Delany, September 19* 1889, and Annie Elizabeth (Bessie), September 3, 1891, both in Raleigh, NC; Bessie died September 25, 1995; daughters of Henry Beard Delany and Nanny James Logan. Education: Sadie graduated from St. Augustine’s in 1910, earned a B.A. from the Pratt Institute, New York, 1918, attended Columbia University Teachers’ College, 1920, and received M.A. from Columbia University, 1925. Bessie graduated from St Augustine’s in 1911, recieved doctor of dental surgery degree from Columbia University, 1923.
Sadie: Worked as Jeanes Supervisor, Wake County, NC, 1910; taught domestic science first in elementary school, then at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Bronx, NY, at Girls High School, Brooklyn, NY, then at Evander Childs High School, Bronx; retired, 1960. Bessie: began to teach in Boardman, NC, 1911; moved to Brunswick, GA, 1913; establihsed dental practice, New York City, 1923; retired, 1956.
efforts by raising each member of her sizeable brood to become a fiercely independent, thrifty, and professional adult.
Sadie and Bessie, inseparable for more than a century until Bessie’s death in 1995, were born in 1889 and 1891 respectively, just before the Jim Crowlaws bloomed into full-blown viciousness in the mid-1890s. “Colored” railroad cars, lynchings, and other means of segregation became commonplace events to them, and so did the calculated insults of white storeowners who refused to wait on them. Their parents tried to teach them to stay out of trouble by sitting only on correctly labelled park-benches and staying away from potentially dangerous crowds-but the lessons were only partly successful. Always the more even-tempered of the two girls, Sadie complied docilely with such strictures. Ever-feisty “Queen Bess, “on the other hand, understood the Jim Crow laws perfectly, yet often went out of her way to flout the rules. She boasted of such exploits as purposely drinking from the ‘white’ fountain to see whether the water tasted any better than that which came from the “colored” faucet. (It didn’t.)
In 1910, Sadie graduated from St. Augustine’s, after earning herself a qualification that entitled her to a teaching post. Her father wanted her to further her studies at a four-year college. “You owe it to your nation, your race and yourself to go. And if you don’t, then shame on you!” he said. But that was not all he had to say. He also wanted her to know that scholarships would be the wrong way to raise the money. “If you take a scholarship,” he warned her, “you will be beholden to the people who gave you the money.”
Sadie agreed. She started looking for a teaching post and eventually found one as a Jeanes supervisor. This was a position named after a white educator named Jeanes, who had started a fund to introduce home economics to nonwhite schools all over the South. Sadie’s job was to travel from school to school, starting courses where none existed, and hiring teachers to continue her work. She often found that a school was an exaggerated claim for a church basement, where the children knelt on the floor and used pews as desks. Her travels revealed to her how the truly poor post-Reconstruction black family lived, and motivated her to help less fortunate colored people. In 1911, Bessie graduated from St. Augustine’s and started teaching in Boardman, North Carolina, to save money for college. She stayed there two years, then moved on, to a slightly larger town in Brunswick, Georgia.
While Bessie was in Boardman she began to entertain the idea of staying single forever. Having helped to raise all her younger brothers and sisters before becoming a teacher, she found the overwhelming attention and love in her classroom too cloying for her independent soul. She made her choice to remain unmarried, and never regretted it. For Sadie, the idea of life as a dedicated single began at home, in the center of her over-protective family. It surfaced as a resentment of men’s authority, which was displayed when her father and her older brother Lemuel decided that a certain beau was not suitable for her. She was given no choice in the matter, but was simply informed that “you won’t be seeing any more of Frank for now. “Neither she nor her sister quite dared to protest to her father, but Bessie said often that Sadie, as a professional woman in her mid-20s, should have been allowed to pick her own friends.
In 1915, both young women visited New York City for the first time. Once they visited trendy Harlem, they were eager to stay. So both set their sights on Columbia University and returned to New York City in 1919 to work towards entering classes there. Once arrived, they enjoyed Harlem’s thriving culture but found that not everything in their new life was as pleasant. One painful experience affected their brother Manross, a World War I veteran, who came back to postwar America believing that military service by black soldiers would make a difference in the way they were treated. However the opposite turned out to be true; the willingness of black Americans to lay down their lives for their country had done nothing to alleviate the sting of racism. Manross’ bitter comment showed his deep hurt: “What more do I have to do to prove I’m an American too?”
The Delany sisters were determined not to let prejudice from the outside world spoil their first taste of adult independence. Sadie started her first teaching job in 1920, and earned $1,500 her first year. Resourceful and anxious to save for post-graduate education, she earned money on the side by making cakes and candies and selling them at school, and hiring a second person to peddle her “Delany’s Delights” all over New York until 1925, when she graduated from Columbia with a master’s degree in education. She then started aiming for promotion to a high school post. She began by applying to the Education Department, then prepared herself to wait out the usual three years before reaching the top of the seniority list. She made meticulous plans to ensure that her chances of promotion could not be dashed simply to appease those parents who might object to her teaching in a white school.
First, knowing that the usual excuse for not hiring black teachers was “can’t employ anyone with a Southern accent,” she took speech lessons to subdue her Carolina lilt. She cleared the next obstacle by when she skipped her interview with the school principal by letting the interview date pass. She sent a letter of apology to the principal, and simply turned up to teach on the first day of school.
Meanwhile, Bessie was working her way through dental school. Having deferred her studies for so many years, she was far older than the other students, though few of them knew that. Reticent by nature, neither she nor Sadie ever discussed their past or responded to questions about their age or their previous teaching experience. “A lot of the girls were just looking for husbands, “Bessie said later. “I wanted to be taken seriously.”
By 1925, Bessie had embarked on a practice as New York’s second-ever black female dentist. She shared a Harlem office with her brother Hap, but they each served their own patients. Although Dr. Bessie served prosperous patients, she never turned the poor away. Her generosity cost her more than her patients knew. Unable to afford a cleaning woman, she rose each workday at dawn and walked ten blocks to clean her office herself. She then walked home, showered and changed, and went back to her office as Dr. Bessie Delany.
Bessie spent her spare time participating in civil rights protests. Characteristically forthright, she agreed with W. E. B. DuBois about the need for forceful and visible protest, and she actively took part in such activities such as protest marches rather than the passive lunch-counter sit-ins preferred by many of her friends. However, she found the protests to be dominated by males who made their female counterparts feel distinctly unwelcome. Their attitude produced a conflict in her about whether she should fight first for first-civil rights or for the interests of women. Because she thought she was more visible as a colored person, the civil rights cause won out. Nevertheless she maintained her close interest in feminist affairs. Both she and Sadie were thrilled when women were given the vote in 1920, and neither of them ever missed a chance to cast their ballots at the polls.
During the Depression years, life was not easy for anyone in Harlem. Many people lost their jobs and their homes; the sight of entire families picking through garbage dumps became a common one. People who formerly frequented playgrounds of the rich, like the Cotton Club, now did their part for the surrounding community by raising money for food baskets for the destitute. The Delany dentists were no better off than the rest. While Sadie always had a steady job for the New York Board of Education, on several occasions Bessie and her brother Hap were evicted for nonpayment of rent. But Bessie would not allow herself to lose hope. One day she went to the government service agency along with one of her patients. After her patient obtained a job, she landed a part-time post in a government clinic, which enabled her not only to keep her practice going in the afternoons, but also to help those less fortunate than herself-in her own words, to “contribute to America’s well being.” “We loved our country,” she later recalled, “even though it didn’t love us back.”
In 1950 the increasing feebleness of their elderly mother forced the sisters to change their lifestyle. It became obvious that one of them would have to stop working to give her continuous care. Together the sisters decided that Bessie would close her office, because her work as an independent dentist would not provide a pension at retirement. Sadie, however, would collect a pension from the Board of Education if she kept working for another ten years. The three women moved into a little cottage in the Bronx, and Bessie became a housewife, taking care of their mother and the many brothers and sisters who visited almost daily. Two of Sadie and Bessie’s brothers died of heart disease between November 1955 and January 1956, just months before their 95-year-old mother died the following June.
Although Nanny Delany had no money to leave her children, she left them a valuable legacy in the form of a detailed oral history. The 75 years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War came alive through stories of their great-grandparents, white Jordan Motley and his colored wife, Eliza, whose parents had been an unknown slave and a white army officer’s wife, and their grandparents, especially mean-looking Grandfather James Milliam, a white man who had been barred from marrying his colored sweetheart. Like many other oral histories covering this same period, these stories provided the Delany sisters an understanding of nearly ten decades of the daily life of their African American ancestors. Most of all, their mother’s oral history spurred their own efforts in preserving a record of America’s black community that stretches back almost to the Declaration of Independence.
The sisters were now too elderly to take a very active role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but they did become involved in issues surrounding neighborhood integration. In 1956, their brother Hap Delany had become the first nonwhite resident of Mount Vernon, New York. After being barred from buying a house there, he had built one, holding his head high when uncouth whites showed their disapproval of his defiance by slashing the tires on his Cadillac. The sisters followed him there a year later. They, too, had a stressful initiation to the neighborhood, when they took some home-grown vegetables to a white neighbor to introduce themselves. Despite a frosty reception, however, they and several other newly-installed nonwhite neighbors called again on the white couple with fruit and flowers after the tragic loss of their 20-year-old son. In belated proof of acceptance into the neighborhood, each guest received a thank-you note.
Their years of retirement passed quietly until 1991, when journalist Amy Hill Hearth came to interview the sisters on the occasion of Dr. Delany’s 100th birthday. In collaboration with Hearth, the sisters published their family chronicles in Having Our Say, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for six months and brought them several television interviews. In 1994 Having Our Say was followed by a second book called Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom, also written with Hearth. The sisters’ final triumph came in 1995, when Having Our Say was produced as a play. Both sisters enjoyed the performances they saw, but 104-year-old Dr. Bessie Delany did not survive to see the end of its run. Her passing in September was marked a funeral service that lasted two-and-a-half hours and the presence of sister Sadie, 106, needle-sharp and brave to the last.
(With Amy Hill Hearth) Having Our Say, Kodansha International, 1993.
(With Hearth) Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom, Kodansha International, 1994.
Gunther, Lenworth, Black Image: European Eyewitness Accounts of Afro-American Life, Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1978.
(With Amy Hill Hearth) Having Our Say, Kodansha International, 1993.
(With Hearth) Delany Sisters ’ Book of Everyday Wisdom, Kodansha International, 1994.
New York Amsterdam News, May 27, 1995, p. 23.
New York Times, September 29,1995, p. A29.
New York Times Biographical Service, September, 1993, p. 1306; September 26, 1995, p. 1408.
Smithsonian, October 1993, p. 144.
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