Reference Entry

Delany, Bessie and Delany, Sadie

Richard Harmond and Peter Wallenstein

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Delany, Bessie and Delany, Sadie

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were born Annie Elizabeth Delany and Sarah Louise Delany in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughters of Henry Beard Delany, an educator and Episcopal bishop, and Nanny James Logan. Bessie was to become a dentist, and Sadie a schoolteacher; late in life, they gained fame for their published reminiscences. Descended from a mix of black, American Indian, and white lineages, the sisters grew up in a family of ten children in Raleigh on the campus of St. Augustine's, the African American school where their father, a former slave, served as priest and vice principal. The sisters graduated from St. Augustine's (Sadie in 1910 and Bessie in 1911) at a time when few Americans, black or white, were educated beyond grammar school. “We had everything you could want except money,” recalled Bessie. “We had a good home, wonderful parents, plenty of love, faith in the Lord, educational opportunities—oh, we had a privileged childhood for colored children of the time” (Smithsonian, Oct. 1993, 150).After completing their studies at St. Augustine's, both Sadie and Bessie went on to teaching jobs in North Carolina. Their father had strongly urged his daughters to teach, since he was unable to finance further education at a four-year college. He also advised them to make their own way, warning them against accepting scholarships that would obligate them to benefactors. Bessie took a job in the mill town of Boardman, while Sadie became the domestic science supervisor for all of the black schools in Wake County. Although she received no extra salary, Sadie also assumed the duties of supervisor of black schools in the county. Both sisters were shocked by the conditions their students lived in. Bessie later said in the sisters’ joint memoir, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993), that she found the families in Boardman “poor and ignorant” (89). Sadie remarked that her students’ families in Wake County were “in bad shape” and that they “needed help with the basics” and “didn't know how to cook, clean, eat properly, or anything” (81). She therefore concentrated her efforts on teaching sanitation, hygiene, and food preparation. She also convinced many of her charges to continue their education.In 1916 Sadie moved to Harlem in New York City and enrolled at Pratt Institute, then a two-year college. After graduating in 1918 she enrolled at Columbia University, where she earned a BS in 1920. She returned to North Carolina briefly with the intention of helping her people but, discouraged by the pervasive Jim Crow system, soon returned to Harlem. She encountered racism in New York but concluded that the North “was an improvement over the South” (107). She began teaching in an elementary school in Harlem in 1920, and for several years she also ran a candy business. In 1925 she received her master's degree in education from Columbia. Beginning in 1930, she taught at Theodore Roosevelt High School, a white school in the Bronx. Having skipped the interview because she feared her color would cost her the job, Sadie stunned school officials on the first day of school; but as she later observed, “Once I was in, they couldn't figure out how to get rid of me” (120). With her appointment, Sadie became the first African American in New York City to teach domestic science at the high school level.In 1918, after teaching for a short time in Brunswick, Georgia, and taking science courses at Shaw University in Raleigh, Bessie joined her sister in New York, where she enrolled the following year in the dentistry program at Columbia University. She completed her DDS in 1923 and became only the second black female dentist licensed in the state of New York, with a practice in Harlem. She was well known there as “Dr. Bessie” and her office was a meeting place for black leaders, including James Weldon Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier. During the Depression of the 1930s she found herself twice evicted from her office, but she persisted in her work.During their childhood the Delany sisters had encountered the segregation and the discrimination of the Jim Crow South and the threat of violence that underlay the system. Bessie remembered the first time she faced segregation when, as a child in the mid-1890s, she found she could no longer go to the park that she had previously played in, and she also recalled experimenting with drinking the water from a “whites only” fountain and discerning no difference in its taste. Yet, like her sister, she found that in the North, too, restrictions and dangers hemmed her in. Bessie's closest brush with the Ku Klux Klan came not in the South, however, but on Long Island.Neither Bessie nor Sadie ever married. Nanny Delany had urged her daughters to decide whether they were going to marry and raise families or have careers. As Bessie said years later, it never occurred to anyone that a woman could have both a family and a profession, and the sisters decided on careers. Bessie and Sadie lived together for nearly eight decades in New York City and then in nearby Mount Vernon, and they were surrounded by family members. All but one of their siblings settled in Harlem, and after their father's death in 1928 their mother lived with them. The sisters were devoted to their mother, and it was largely to please her that after World War II they left Harlem and moved to a cottage in the north Bronx. In 1950 Bessie gave up her dental practice to care for their mother full time. After their mother's death in 1956, the sisters moved to Mount Vernon, where they purchased a house in an all-white neighborhood. Sadie retired in 1960. Sadie was amiable by nature, having broken the color barrier in the New York City public schools through craft instead of confrontation. By contrast, Bessie was feisty and contentious, accustomed to speaking her mind. “We loved our country,” she observed, “even though it didn't love us back” (60). Asked her impression of the Statue of Liberty when she first entered New York harbor, she replied that it was important as a symbol to white immigrants but meant nothing to her. Regarding her experience at Columbia University, she noted: “I suppose I should be grateful to Columbia, that at that time they let in colored people. Well, I'm not. They let me in but they beat me down for being there! I don't know how I got through that place, except when I was young nothing could hold me back” (115).The Delany sisters might have escaped notice by the wider world had they not in 1993 coauthored a best-selling memoir with the assistance of Amy Hill Hearth. Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years had its origins in an essay that Hearth had written for the New York Times on the occasion of Bessie's one-hundredth birthday. So enthusiastic were readers’ responses to the article that Hearth continued her interviews and produced the book. Published when Bessie was 102 and Sadie was 104, Having Our Say offered a perceptive, witty review of the sisters’ lives through the previous century. As Hearth observed in her introduction to the book, it was meant less as a study of black history or of women's history than of American history, but the sisters’ age, race, and gender combined to provide a tart perspective on the past. These two black women spoke of their strong family, the racism and sexism that could have thwarted them, and their triumphs. They spoke of their experiences as teachers in the segregated South, their participation in the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North, and—although more briefly—their recollections of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Having Our Say remained on the New York Times best-seller list—first in hardback and then as a paperback—for seventy-seven weeks.By the time Bessie Delany died at age 104 at her Mount Vernon home in 1995, Having Our Say had sold nearly a million copies in hardback or paper and had been translated into four foreign languages. Reviewers were generally enthusiastic about the book, but an unsigned commentary in the Women's Review of Books in January 1994 questioned the role of Amy Hill Hearth as a white woman selectively pulling together the recollections of two elderly black women. Such criticism did not, however, diminish the popular appeal of the sisters’ story, which was adapted as a Broadway play in 1995 and as a television movie in 1999, starring Diahann Carroll as Sadie and Ruby Dee as Bessie. That same year Sadie Delany died in Mount Vernon, at age 109.

Reference Entry.  1576 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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