Category Archives: Delany Sisters

“Streetcar to Justice” Was Inspired by Friendship with the Delany Sisters

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.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Delany Sisters, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Nonfiction books, People, Remembrances, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

Earth Day 2017: Look to Your Elders

If we want to take environmental concerns seriously, most of us can start by emulating the habits of our elders. Few people threw things out the way we do today, and wastefulness is a huge part of the problem.

When I met the Delany Sisters, they were surprised that their small city – Mt. Vernon, N.Y. – was starting a new, vigorous recycling program. Why were they surprised? Because they’d been recycling (without calling it that) for years.

The term “carbon footprint” wasn’t widely in use then, but I guarantee that the Delany Sisters impact on the environment was extremely minimal. They were frugal, thoughtful people.

My mother grew up in deprivation during the Great Depression of the 1930s followed by World War Two-era rationing and, at 91, she still saves every piece of aluminum foil she lays her hands on. Because she didn’t always have enough to eat as a child, she will spend a half-hour carefully cutting away the “bad” parts of a rotten piece of fruit in order to salvage a small bit of it.

A few years ago I met Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould who became the subject of my oral history ‘Strong Medicine’ Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her awareness and consideration of the environment were essential to her world-view. This was a woman who collected wild plants to make salves. She was the matriarch of a Native American Tribe whose members will do almost anything to avoid cutting down a tree, and if they do, they will leave a gift to the spirits as a form of acknowledging the tree’s passing.

When I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, focusing on Florida in the early 1960s, the impact of humans on the fragile ecology was crucial to telling the story. Some reviewers noted that the Everglades is, in a sense, a main character in the second novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County. The classic battle of man versus nature is a primary theme. I was a newspaper reporter in Florida years ago, and it was the old-timers who understood how to live on the land with minimal impact. These were folks who lived a rough life among the mangroves and the manatees. They took only what they needed.

It’s time we listened to all of them and followed their example.

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“Freedom! Freedom! I Am Free!”

Although he was only a little boy, Henry B. Delany, the Delany Sisters’ beloved Papa, would never forget the day in 1865 that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union at Appomattox Court House. Henry Delany and his family were slaves in St. Mary’s, Georgia.

“He remembered being in the kitchen and wearing a little apron, which little slave boys wore in those days,” the Delany Sisters recalled in the book we created together, Having Our Say. “It had one button at the top, at the back of the neck, and the ends were loose. And when the newsof the Surrender came, he said he ran about the house with that apron fluttering behind him, yelling, ‘Freedom! Freedom! I am free! I am free!’ “

The little boy grew to be a remarkable man who went to college and became Vice-Principal of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, N.C. Later in life, he became the first Black elected Bishop in the Episcopal Church USA.

His two eldest daughters, Sadie and Bessie, who became famous in the 1990s as the centenarian Delany Sisters, adored their father. Decades after his death in 1928, the sisters celebrated his birthday as if he were about to walk into the room. They cooked all of his favorite foods, including a dessert called ambrosia. I was there for several of those remarkable celebrations.

Bishop Delany’s birthday is on my mind because he was born 159 years ago tomorrow – February 5, 1858. I think I’ll honor him by making ambrosia, just as the sisters did, year after year.

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Violence, Race, and America:What You Can Do to Make Things Better

Many people are deeply distressed and grieving about race relations in America. There is a feeling of utter helplessness among countless Americans who don’t know what to do to make things better. As someone who has studied and written about race in America for years, I have some suggestions that I’d like to share with you. Continue reading

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Announcing: My Academic Article on the Delany Sisters

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.

Edited volume published by Univ. 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.

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Musings on Black History Month, the Delany Sisters, and ‘Having Our Say’

Back in 1991 when I was a newspaper reporter and met the then-unknown Delany Sisters, the 100 and 102 year old pair of sisters insisted on being described first and foremost as American.

Yes, they were Black. Yes, they were women. And proud of it.

But “American” came first.

The same held true after my newspaper story was published and we began working on our book, Having Our Say. The sisters often said they hoped the book would be categorized not as Black history or Women’s history, but as American history.

Indeed, while the book (early on, at least) was shelved in the Black History and Women’s Interest sections of many book stores, it gravitated toward the broader, mainstream category of biography/autobiography, helped along when a prominent reviewer wrote that Having Our Say presented “a missing slice of American history.”

It was indeed a missing slice, or missing perspective. Their father, who had been born into slavery in Georgia, eventually became an Episcopal Bishop. Their mother, who could have passed for white but chose not to, was born free in Virginia. The girls and their eight siblings were raised right on the campus of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, North Carolina because their father was vice-principal and their mother, a teacher and administrator.

The sisters went to college (and graduate school!) and launched ground-breaking careers in New York. As part of what was known as the “Black Elite,” they knew everyone from James Weldon Johnson to Paul Robeson.

By the early 1990s, when I met them, the sisters had to be persuaded that what they had to say was important for the sake of history. They’d been made to feel insignificant for so long they couldn’t believe anyone would want to hear what they had to say. (As it turned out, plenty of people did. Our little book was a New York Times bestseller for 113 weeks!)

Readers may find it interesting to learn that the Delany Sisters had mixed feelings about the celebration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. The sisters recognized that these specially-designated months make an important contribution by providing a context in which some of the historical gaps are filled.

And yet, the Delany sisters and I hoped (as we discussed many times) that over time the points of view, experiences, opinions, and accomplishments of all Americans would be incorporated into the text books – and into our collective history. Perhaps one day, Black History Month and Women’s History Month will no longer be needed.

As Bessie Delany said (and it still stands true today): “We’ve made progress. But we have a long way to go.”

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A Simpler Christmas

I sometimes envy the way people celebrated Christmas in days gone by. The Delany Sisters, born in 1889 and 1891, often told me about being thrilled to find an orange in their Christmas stockings – an orange being a treat.

My mom recalls the Depression when some years there weren’t Christmas celebrations at all. One year she received a Shirley Temple doll, definitely the best gift of her entire childhood.

My dad’s favorite recollections of Christmas involve singing Christmas carols while someone played piano. His favorite: “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” He doesn’t remember the gifts; that wasn’t what was important to him.

In my generation, post-war parents began spoiling their children with many presents. This includes my parents! Still, Christmas in our household meant church. It meant carols. It meant fun traditions like baking cookies. No matter how crazed it seems looking back on it, our Christmases were nothing compared to what many people (usually women) feel they have to do today.

Here are a few suggestions for getting a handle on an out-of-control Christmas:

1) Think twice about adding someone to your gift list. If it’s an impulse, don’t do it, unless you are prepared to give a present to this person every year.

2) Never add anything new to your holiday plans without subtracting something else. You don’t have to do everything every year.

3) Give to charity rather than shopping for people who already have too much. It is so easy today to give to a favorite cause. Just go online and donate!

4) Buy local. Then you won’t have to worry if your gifts will arrive in time. Lots of “mom and pop” stores will even gift-wrap for you.

5) Share activities with your friends and neighbors. One of my friends, who lives alone and doesn’t want or need to bake a thousand cookies, participates in a “cookie swap” at her church. Less baking and more variety!

May you all have a Merry Christmas with many moments of peace and reflection!

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