When you’ve had friends like the late Sadie and Bessie Delany, with whom I created the 1993 oral history Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, you find that you see life in a different way. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a mother who was mixed race and born free, the sisters were 100 and 102 years old and absolutely still full of life when I met them. They had never married, and had lived together their entire lives.
Their memories were astonishing. They were funny, candid, and insightful. They were independent, dignified, and forthright. And, apparently they had not changed one bit in more than a century.
At the time we met I was already an established journalist but from their point of view I was, at age 33, a mere child in need of their protection and advice. Their expectations for my future were high. Having Our Say, they made it clear, would be my first book. I was to go on and write more books, and each one would have to be worthy of my time and God-given talent.
In fact, the Delany Sisters not only had specific ideas for my future, they said they’d be watching and cheering me on from the Spirit World after they were gone. (Bessie went one step further: She said she was going to be my guardian angel. “Anyone who messes with you is going to be sorry,” she’d say.) To the Delany Sisters, love and expectations and high hopes were all intertwined.
Having Our Say started as a feature story I wrote about the then-unknown pair of sisters for The New York Times. The next thing I knew, I was contacted by a book publisher. Did I want to expand my story into a full-length book?
The Delany Sisters, born in 1889 and 1891, were from a generation of black women whose contributions and perspectives were almost completely ignored. It didn’t take long for us to agree that the book should be done for the sake of history. As Sadie noted, “Maybe it will help somebody. Mama used to say, if it helps one person, it’s worth doing.”
The sisters’ upbringing was very unusual: Along with their eight brothers and sisters, they were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, N.C. where their father was vice-principal and their mother, a teacher and administrator. Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois were among the friends of the Delany family. As young adults, the sisters went on to become ground-breaking career women, both having earned advanced degrees at Columbia University in New York City. Living in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, the sisters experienced what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. From the Delany sisters I learned black history in depth and firsthand.
Having Our Say, to my surprise, was a runaway bestseller. Later, it was adapted to the Broadway stage and for an award-winning film. Twenty-five years after its publication, the book is still used in American classrooms.
The sisters have been gone for years now. Bessie, the “little” sister, died at age 104 in 1995. Sadie died in 1999, a few months short of her 110th birthday.
I think about them every day, and whenever I have a problem I ask myself, What would the sisters say? And the answer pops right into my head. I’m following in their footsteps as I make my way through life. One thing I am sure of: My new book, Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York is exactly the type of book project they wanted me to do. I have felt their presence every step of the way.