The sisters were educated and urged to ‘reach high’
WHEN SADIE AND BESSIE DELANY were born, Henry Ford hadn’t yet put his better idea on an assembly line and the Wright brothers were still on the ground. The daughters of a freed slave, Sadie, 104, and her younger sister, Bessie, 102, grew up in the South before the dawn of this century.
Today the sisters can vividly recall the passage of Jim Crow laws that officially segregated blacks from whites. Until then, says Bessie, “white folks wanted you to know that you were colored, but they didn’t have any way of pounding it into you.” The two spirited little girls would often challenge the segregation laws by scrambling into front seats on a bus or sneaking drinks from whites-only fountains. ” ‘White’ water didn’t taste any different from ‘colored’ water,” notes Sadie some nine decades later, as the sisters sit primly in the tidy parlor of their Mount Vernon, N.Y., home.
In their new acclaimed memoir, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (Kodansha International), the Delanys—self-described “maiden ladies” who have lived together virtually their entire lives—reflect poignantly on being what they call “colored” in America in the 20th century. They recount their journey from North Carolina to New York, armed with little more than education and spunk, to pursue careers.
Neither the civil-rights movement nor feminism had yet raised the nation’s consciousness in the 1920s, when Sadie became the first black to teach domestic science in a New York City high school and Bessie the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York. “They said Negroes couldn’t read and write,” says Bessie today. “Well, my people could.”
In fact, their parents, Nanny Logan and Henry Beard Delany, met as students at St. Augustine’s school in Raleigh, N.C., an institution dedicated to educating blacks. Henry, who would go on to become the nation’s first elected black Episcopal bishop, in 1918, had been taught to read as a “house nigger” on a St. Marys, Ga., plantation. As chaplain at St. Aug’s, he raised his 10 children, including Sarah Louise and Annie Elizabeth, his oldest daughters, on the school campus. Yet, while their intellectual life was rich, domestic conditions were harsh. “We didn’t have plumbing,” says Bessie. “You had to carry water from the spring for drinking and bathing. And I would have to dig a hole and empty slops from the commodes for 14 people every morning.”
Having wearied of household chores by their teens, Sadie and Bessie balked when their mother suggested futures as homemakers. Bessie recalls, “I said, ‘Mama, I don’t want none of that. I helped raise your family, and that’s enough for me.’ ” Says Sadie: “I wanted to be a nurse, but my father said, ‘Why don’t you become a doctor?”
After teaching domestic science at “colored schools” around the South for seven years to earn tuition, the sisters headed north to New York City, where Bessie got a degree in dental surgery and Sadie received a master’s degree in education, both from Columbia University. After graduating, Sadie landed a job teaching home ec in a Manhattan high school by not going to her interview. “They would have seen that I was colored and bounced me,” she writes. Instead, she missed her appointment—and was assigned to a school. “Child,” she adds, “when I showed up, they just about died.”
Bessie set up her dental practice in Harlem, and she “ran it,” she says, “like a social-service center.” In fact, it was in her office that friends like Cab Calloway and black activist W.E.B. Du Bois gathered. “We saw-Harlem become Harlem,” she says. “We went there when it was just changing and you couldn’t get served.” Even hot clubs with black entertainers catered to whites. Still, Bessie refused to eat in integrated restaurants for fear, she says, that “servers would spit in the food.”
Nonetheless, that era was a heady time for the Delanys, who eventually lived in the same building with several siblings, all of whom had professions. (Lemuel was a doctor, Hubert a judge.) “Oh, we had a lot of beaux,” Sadie remembers. “I was nice to them, but I was making more money than they and said, ‘I’m not taking care of any man.”
To this day the sisters remain fiercely independent. Although they don’t venture out much, Bessie and Sadie cook their own meals and refuse live-in help. Central to their life is their faith. Ask their prescription for longevity, and—along with yoga, a daily spoonful of cod liver oil, vitamins and a clove of chopped garlic—they cite twice-daily prayer sessions. “The Lord is always with me,” says Sadie.
Delighting in their hit memoir, which was inspired by a 1991 New York Times piece by the book’s coauthor, Amy Hill Hearth, the Delanys are now contemplating another writing venture. Teases Sadie: “Bessie says she’s gonna live to be 120.” Her sister and best friend chuckles. “I wanna be like Moses,” she says. “And, honey, I’m gonna keep on trying.” Adds Sadie: “And I’ll just have to live to keep her company.”