Delany, Annie Elizabeth (“Bessie”)

views updated

Delany, Annie Elizabeth (“Bessie”)

(b. 3 September 1891 in Raleigh, North Carolina; d. 25 September 1995 in Mount Vernon, New York), dentist, civil rights activist, and coauthor of the best-selling memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993).

Bessie was the third of ten children born to Henry Beard Delany, Sr., a former slave who became the first elected African American bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., and vice principal of Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Nanny James Logan, a matron at Saint Augustine’s. Henry Delany’s family were house slaves of a family named Mock, who taught them to read and write. Nanny Logan was born free. Brought up on the Saint Augustine campus, Bessie and her siblings were reared in a household that emphasized education, religion, and service. The Delany children were raised with the motto, “your job is to help someone.” Growing up on a college campus provided them a somewhat sheltered experience, but no black children in the Jim Crow South were completely immune from the harsh racial realities of the time. Feisty throughout her life, Bessie lashed into anyone who slighted her on the basis of her race or sex. She considered herself dark-skinned and said, “the darker you are, honey, the harder it is.” She knew that dark-skinned blacks often bore the brunt of racial prejudice and developed an aggressive attitude in response. As a five-year-old on the way to Pullen Park in Raleigh, Bessie was introduced to racism by a trolley driver who forced her family to the back of the car. She and her siblings protested loudly, but to no avail. When they arrived at the park and found segregated water fountains, Bessie drank from the one reserved for whites.

Delany received her primary and secondary education at Saint Augustine’s in nontraditional classrooms, where her classmates were both children and adults. She graduated from Saint Augustine’s in 1911 with the equivalent of a two-year degree and then worked as a teacher in Board-man, North Carolina, earning forty dollars a month. In 1913 she moved to Brunswick, Georgia, and taught at the Saint Athanasius School, with the goal of saving money to continue her education. Once while traveling to her job, Bessie was almost lynched for telling a drunken white man at the Waycross train station to “shut up” and go away. She escaped, and the incident did not deter her from speaking her mind whenever she felt slighted.

In 1915, traveling with their mother, Delany and her older sister Sarah (Sadie) visited New York City. The sisters decided to move to New York to continue their education. Sadie arrived in 1916 and Bessie joined her in 1917. At a time when many blacks headed North for greater opportunity, nine of the ten Delany children moved to New York City and all ten finished college. Delany had aspirations of becoming a doctor but entered Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery in 1919, one of eleven women and the only black woman in a class of about 200. She graduated in June 1923. Known as “Dr. Bessie,” Delany, only the second licensed black woman dentist in New York State, was renowned for providing free care to the poor at her office on Seventh Avenue and 135th Street. In twenty-seven years of practice she never raised her rates of two dollars for a cleaning and five dollars for a silver filling. When business suffered during the Great Depression, Delany supplemented her income by running a dental clinic near City Hall in Lower Manhattan.

Harlem was a lively place in the 1920s, and Delany rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as the poet James Weldon Johnson, who was a patient of hers, the bandleader Cab Calloway, and the singer Paul Robeson. By the middle of the 1920s Dr. Delany’s office was a meeting place for activists in Harlem, including E. Franklin Frazier. She enthusiastically participated in civil rights marches in Manhattan. Around 1925 she had a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island, New York, which only furthered her resolve to fight for civil rights. Reflecting upon that incident, she recalled, “All you had to do was say the word ‘protest’ and I was there!” While her sister Sadie preferred Booker T. Washington’s theory of gradual advancement through practical education, Delany was more confrontational and embraced the philosophy of her friend W. E. B. Du Bois. Bessie and Sadie rented their first apartment together in Harlem around 1919 before moving to a Bronx cottage and finally settling into a home they bought in Mount Vernon in 1957. Nanny Logan Delany joined the two sisters in New York in April 1928, following the death of her husband. In 1950 Dr. Delany retired prematurely from her dental practice to care for her ailing mother, who died on 2 June 1956.

In 1991 Amy Hill Hearth, a reporter for the New York Times, interviewed Sadie and Bessie, as the two had just celebrated their 102nd and 100th birthdays. Readers immediately fell in love with the Delany sisters, who teamed with the reporter to write Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993), which sold millions of copies and maintained a spot on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for seventy-seven weeks. In 1995 their story was turned into a Broadway play that earned three Tony Award nominations. At the ages of 103 and 105, Bessie and Sadie again collaborated with Hearth to produce The Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom (1995). Bessie died in her sleep in her Mount Vernon home and is buried between her parents in Raleigh’s Mount Hope Cemetery. On 18 April 1999 Having Our Say aired as a CBS made-for-television movie.

Spurning traditional societal norms, Bessie Delany blazed a fiercely independent trail. Neither Bessie nor her sister Sadie ever married, and over the years the two became inseparable, referring to themselves as “maiden ladies.” Prideful and stubborn, Delany was well ahead of her time. She soared to professional heights that few women, let alone African American women, were able to reach. Her continuous battles against racism and sexism might have broken the spirits of someone with less determination. However, this adversity only made Delany work harder and set her sights higher. Fighting through tremendous obstacles, she never lost her “urge to change the world.”

Henry Beard Delany’s personal papers are in the Delany Collection at St. Augustine’s College. Bessie Delany’s memoir, with Sarah Delany and Amy Hill Hearth, is Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993). Their second book with Hearth is The Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom (1995). Following Bessie’s death, Sadie wrote On My Own: Life Without Bessie (1997). “Two ‘Maiden Ladies’ With Century-Old Stories to Tell,” the article that generated public interest in the Delany sisters, is in the New York Times (22 Sept. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Sept. 1995).

Daniel Massey

About this article

Delany, Annie Elizabeth (“Bessie”)

Updated About content Print Article