Category Archives: Remembrances

“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

On Memorial Day, a World War Two Dad’s Legacy: Never Take a Day for Granted

My dad always had a strange reaction to Memorial Day Weekend, or so it seemed to me as a little girl. Yes, it was the beginning of summer and we celebrated (if that is the right word) with hamburgers on the grill and root beer floats.

But I realized from an early age that the so-called “holiday” was a time when my dad, a World War Two Army veteran and normally a very upbeat person, was also quietly grieving.

He didn’t say much. I believe he wanted to protect us, his children, from the horrors of the world. When he did talk about the war, it was nearly always about the goofy things that had happened, the hijinks and practical jokes because, after all, he and his Army buddies were so young they were little more than boys. My dad didn’t even shave yet.

Over the years, he began to talk about how lucky he’d been, how he could have been in much worse places, how his near-misses had been exactly that – near-misses.

He would talk (if I asked him) about the friends from high school, his Boy Scout troop, church, even his high school swim team who “didn’t make it home.”

Then, of course, there were his fellow soldiers. The one from Mississippi, for example, who, like Dad, was an only child. How this particular guy had died not from war wounds but from malaria. How Dad wrote to that soldier’s mother every Christmas until she died, decades after the war ended.

Very late in his life, Dad shared a memory from basic training. “We were doing a training exercise where we had to crawl on our bellies with live ammunition being shot over our heads,” he told me. “There was this guy. Same age as me. He lifted his head just a little too high and he was killed instantly. That was the first time I saw things I wish I hadn’t. And I wasn’t even overseas yet.”

To the world, his generation was known as the greatest. To Dad, his was a damaged generation of people who happened to be born at the wrong time. The survivors would be haunted by the questions of what might have been.

Men like my dad lived their entire lives with the scars of their war experiences. When he was about 80 years old, Dad had a major operation. When he awoke, he thought he was on the back of an Army truck on the Burma Road. The war was long over, but it had shaped and largely defined my father’s life. It never left him.

But Dad lived his long life- he died last fall at 92 – with an ever-present sense of gratitude. He never took a day for granted. He never lost his deep appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many others. I believe he endeavored to live a happy, worthy life in part because he felt he was living for those who didn’t get the chance.

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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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My Word of the Year for 2017

A friend just posted that her personal word for the new year is “confidence.”

I’m not sure if she’s feeling confident or hoping that she will. Either way, that would not be my word for 2017.

Mine is “resolute.”

Resolute is a great word. It means purposeful, determined, and unwavering.

The image that comes to mind when I think of “resolute” is the way my dad used to describe being a young soldier in World War Two. All you really want to do is go home but in the meantime, you have to make a conscious effort to be strong. Determined. Unwavering. Resolute.

My dad died last fall, and I had several other losses last year as well. I’m grieving for my father, and for all of the problems of the world, some of which seem quite hopeless at times.

I’m determined to keep moving forward, however. As Dad used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

May you find peace, love, and happiness in 2017. (Or, at the least, may you be resolute!)

Best wishes to you,

Amy

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Filed under People, Remembrances, The Writing Life

What an Epic Storm Means to a Writer

I hope everyone has recovered from the blizzard that covered half of the country last weekend.

When nature wreaks havoc, we adults tend to focus on the stress and inconvenience, while children see an opportunity for a break from school and a chance to frolic in the snow.

From an author’s point of view, an epic storm (unless you are caught out in it) can create a delightful bubble of quiet, reflective time that is perfect for deep reading and writing. Even more than that, we story-tellers know that a big, gorgeous, messy storm can spark our creativity. In fiction writing as in real life, epic storms divert people from their normal routine. People go missing – or pretend to. Strangers meet. Conversations happen that wouldn’t, otherwise. A big storm creates lovely chaos. It is real life on steroids.

In the nonfiction realm, epic storms are an oral historian’s dream. That’s because they often yield great family stories. Both of my parents recall the Great North American Blizzard of 1947, and every time there is a new blizzard, they talk about it again.

Dad had the misfortune of being on a road trip, trying to get home from college for Christmas, when the storm hit. His is a wild tale of a bunch of college boys pushing a beat-up, second-hand Model-T through one snow drift after another for more than two hundred miles. None of their parents knew where they were; even the telegram wires were down. It’s a story of the foolishness, determination, and resilience of youth.

Mom, on the other hand, remembers it as the storm that led to her decision to buy snow skis and take lessons, which doesn’t sound hugely life-changing until you realize that if she hadn’t, she and my Dad might never have married. By the time they met, Mom was a proficient skier. When she and Dad met at a young adult fellowship meeting at church, she offered to teach him how to ski. He made a good impression during those lessons. She says he was a good sport who didn’t mind looking foolish (falling a lot) in front of her.

And so one thing leads to another. A new plotline. A new direction. Character development. All because of a storm.

This is not to make light of the serious, sometimes awful events that occur during storms. It’s simply to point out that a big storm, to a writer or anyone with a large imagination, is like a small rock skipped across a pond, with ripples sent in a thousand, sometimes-unseen directions.

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Filed under family life, Remembrances, The Writing Life

A Family Story of Hope and Perseverance

I have a story about my grandma (my dad’s mother) that I would like to share with you. It is a story of hope, perseverance, and love. Grandma told me this story one day over breakfast thirty years ago. I knew that she had been a miracle baby – she weighed less than 3 pounds when she was born in 1896 – but she had never provided any details. Over toast and jam, she told me the rest of the story: Her mother fell down the cellar stairs on Christmas morning and went into labor prematurely. The baby (Grandma) wasn’t due until March or April but she was born January 7. There had been a terrible snowstorm (this was in Wisconsin) and the doctor was unable to come for days. When he arrived, he told my great-grandma that she “shouldn’t get attached to the baby.” He said Grandma was the smallest baby he’d ever seen and “too small to live.” Well, he was wrong. Grandma not only survived but she lived a long and happy life. When she told me this story she was already close to 90. She passed away in 1997 at age 101.

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Mom’s Special Christmas, Circa 1931

My mom, who is 90, was reminiscing recently about Christmas during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There wasn’t much in the way of gifts. Matter of fact, there wasn’t much in the way of food.

Daily life was usually a struggle. Grandpa became a scavenger, coming home with fruit that had been discarded by stores, or fallen off a truck onto the streets of New York City. As long as it was not rotten, they’d eat it. To this day, my mother will eat fruit that neither you nor I would probably touch.

“It’s only bruised,” she will say. “There’s nothing really wrong with it.”

There was only one Christmas during those years that Mom remembers getting a store-bought gift. While she and her sister were singing in the children’s choir at church on Christmas Eve, either Grandpa or Grandma slipped out, dashed back to the little apartment where they lived, and put two wrapped presents – one for my mom and the other for Mom’s older sister – under the tree.

Later, when they all returned from church together, Grandpa and Grandma pretended to be surprised to see gifts under the tree.

Mom doesn’t remember what her sister’s gift was. But her eyes still open wide when she recalls the thrill of opening hers: A Shirley Temple doll.

My mother’s experience during the Depression is a reminder of the excess of material things we have today, and that we don’t need much – or anything at all – to celebrate Christmas.

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