Delany, Sarah Louise and Delany, Annie Elizabeth

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Delany, Sarah Louise and Delany, Annie Elizabeth

African-American sisters who as centenarians became best-selling authors.

Delany, Sarah Louise (1889–1999). Name variations: Sadie Delany. Born Sarah Louise Delany on September 19, 1889, in Raleigh, North Carolina; died at home in Mount Vernon, New York, on January 25, 1999; second daughter and two of ten children of Nanny James and Henry Beard Delany (a teacher and Episcopal priest); graduated from St. Augustine's College; attended Pratt Institute; Columbia University, B.A., 1920, M.Ed., 1925; never married; no children.

Delany, Annie Elizabeth (1891–1995). Name variations: Bessie Delany. Born Annie Elizabeth Delany on September 3, 1891, in Raleigh, North Carolina; died at home in Mount Vernon, New York, on September

25, 1995; third daughter and two of ten children of Nanny James Delany and Henry Beard Delany (a teacher and Episcopal priest); graduated from St. Augustine's College and Columbia University, D.D.S., 1923; never married; no children.

Selected works:

Having Our Say, The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (with Amy Hill Hearth, 1993); The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom (1994); (solo) Sarah L. Delany, On My Own at 107 (with Amy Hill Hearth, 1997).

African-American centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delany first came to national attention in 1993, with the publication of their book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, an oral history tracing their family life and their remarkable achievements as pioneering professionals—one a dentist and the other a teacher—during a time when neither women nor blacks had many opportunities. The book, contextualized by Amy Hill Hearth who had previously written an article on the sisters for The New York Times, was on the Times best-seller list for 28 weeks, and inspired the award-winning Broadway play Having Our Say (1995) by Emily Mann . "Not bad for two old inky-dinks!," crowed Bessie over their success. Responding to a deluge of fan mail, the sisters came out with a second book in 1994, The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom.

Sadie and Bessie were two of ten children of Henry Beard Delany, an ex-slave who became America's first black Episcopal bishop, and Nanny James Delany , an issue-free black whose ancestry was mostly white. (Issue-free meant that although she had some black ancestry, her mother was not a slave.) The sisters grew up on the North Carolina campus of St. Augustine's College, a school for blacks in Raleigh, where their father was a teacher and an administrator and their mother was the supervising matron. The Delany children were well-educated, strictly disciplined, and held to high standards, although their environment was nurturing and somewhat protected. "We had unusual parents, " Bessie said. "Everyone thinks their parents were special, but I know ours were. Our father was wise and he was very proud of his family. We were and we are a loving family, very close to each other."

The sisters vividly recalled the changes in the South at the turn of the century, when the Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation by race. They remembered the first day they were refused service at Johnson's Drug Store in Raleigh, where they customarily went for limeades, and the day they went to get water and found a divider placed over the middle of the spring with a sign on one side that read "Whites Only." "It was a terrible time," Sadie said. "People got lynched—it was terrible." Bessie, the more outspoken and confrontational of the sisters, would frequently sneak sips from the "white" water fountains and was almost lynched herself one day for speaking rudely to a "rebby boy" in a train station. They endured racism later in life, too. Bessie spoke of a particularly humiliating incident that occurred at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan in 1924, when she asked a man at the front desk to direct her to the room where she was to attend a medical conference. "That louse directed me to the men's room," she recalled, still angry after 65 years. "I have never gotten over that."

The Delanys left St. Augustine's as certified teachers, and both taught school until they had saved enough to pay for college. Sadie joined her brother Hap in New York in 1916, and attended a two-year program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before entering Teachers College at Columbia University. After receiving both a bachelor's and master's degree in education, she began her teaching career, eventually becoming the first black woman permitted to teach home economics at the high school level in New York City. (She later admitted that she skipped the mandatory interview for her first teaching job, fearing that she might be rejected because of her race. Instead, she just appeared on the first day of classes and began teaching.) Bessie followed her sister in 1918, entering the dental program at Columbia after being turned away from New York University's dental program because she was female. After graduating in 1923, she became only the second black woman to be licensed to practice dentistry in New York City. Known as "Dr. Bessie, Harlem's colored woman dentist," she never turned a patient away, no matter how poor or sick. "I remember a child with syphilis, and nobody else would touch her," she said. "I said, 'Well, somebody's got to help her,' so I did." Bessie charged $2 for a cleaning and $5 for a silver filling, never raising her prices in 27 years of practice.

The sisters, who socialized with the elite of the Harlem Renaissance, like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes, never married, although they received many offers. "You see, in our day it didn't occur to anyone that you could be married and have a career," Sadie explained. They lived together in an apartment on 145th Street and Seventh Avenue until 1928, when they moved with their widowed mother into a house in the Bronx. After Nanny's death in 1956, they bought a two-family house in Mount Vernon, New York, where they were among the first to integrate the neighborhood.

The sisters attributed their longevity to simple clean living. "No drinking, no chewing, no smoking," said Sadie. They also joked that they probably lived so long because they didn't marry. "We never had husbands to worry us to death," said Bessie. They started each day with a spoonful of cod liver oil and a chopped clove of garlic, and never drank the tap water without boiling it first. They also performed yoga exercises every morning except Sunday, when they attended Episcopal church service in Mount Vernon. The sisters kept up with world events by reading the daily newspapers and watching the "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour" each evening on a black-and-white television set. Independence was also an important aspect of their well-being, as was laughter, enjoyment, and a stress-free life. Mentally, the Delanys were as sharp as tacks. "There

was no date, name or other detail that the sisters could not recall about their century long lives," wrote Hearth in her first article on the pair.

Bessie Delany began to fail after breaking her hip in 1994 and was the first of the sisters to die, passing away quietly at home on September 25, 1995, at the age of 104. Sadie conceded to hiring a part-time cook and companion but remained in the Mount Vernon home tending Bessie's garden. Aided again by Amy Hill Hearth, Sadie expressed her profound loss in a new book On My Own at 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie. "A few day after you left us Bessie," she wrote, "I started wearing one of your suit coats—you know, the gray one you loved so much. It made me feel good having it wrapped around me. I'm very conscious of being alone. I notice your absence in everything I do." Sadie survived to 109, dying peacefully in her sleep like Bessie on January 25, 1999.


Bernstein, Amy. "Epitaph," in U.S. News & World Report. October 9, 1995.

Delany, Sarah L., with Amy Hill Hearth. On My Own at 107. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1997.

Hearth, Amy Hill. "Two 'Maiden Ladies' with Century-Old Stories to Tell," in The New York Times. September 22, 1991.

Jones, Charisse. "The Younger of Delany sisters, Bessie, dies in her sleep, at 104," in The Day (New London, CT). September 26, 1995.

Lyons, Christine and William Barnhill. "'We're Having Our Say'," in AARP Bulletin. Vol. 35, No. 3, March 1994.

"Obituary," in The Day (New London, CT). January 26, 1999.

related media:

Having Our Say by Emily Mann , opened on Broadway in 1995.

"Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years," starring Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll , and Amy Madigan , with a cameo appearance by Della Reese , first aired on CBS television on April 18, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Delany, Sarah Louise and Delany, Annie Elizabeth

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