Five years ago I was asked to write a lengthy, peer-reviewed essay on the centenarian Delany Sisters for inclusion in a book to be called, North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times Vol. II, part of a state-by-state academic series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times.
That book has just been published by the University of Georgia Press.
I am thrilled.
And maybe – just maybe – a little relieved that it’s done. I’ve written nine books and hundreds of newspaper articles but this was the first time I wrote an essay that necessitated 93 footnotes.
You read that right – 93 footnotes.
And I think I have a gray hair for each one of them.
But I’m proud of the result, and I’m thankful to the two editors, Michele Gillespie, Professor of Southern History at Wake Forest University, and Sally G. McMillen, Professor of History at Davidson College, for encouraging me to participate, even though I am not an academician.
My training is in journalism. That’s how I came to meet the Delany Sisters back in 1991. I wrote a feature story about them for The New York Times. After my story was published, the sisters and I collaborated on our 1993 oral history, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
The book made its mark, for it tells the story of race in America in a way that hadn’t been done before – through the eyes of two centenarian sisters. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a woman who could have passed for white but chose not to, the Delany Sisters had a very unusual childhood. They were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, where their parents were employed. The sisters (and all but one of their eight brothers and sisters) moved to New York City as young adults to pursue opportunities not available to them in the South. Sadie Delany became a groundbreaking teacher in the New York Public Schools while her little sister, Bessie, became only the second black woman dentist licensed in New York.
North Carolina, however, would always be “home.” They are buried there, alongside Mama and Papa, just a short distance from the campus of “St. Aug’s.”
The sisters would have been greatly honored to be included in an academic book about North Carolina women. I’m so delighted that I had the opportunity to help make it happen. I felt their presence, every step of the way.