Skip to main content

The American Century Of Bessie And Sadie Delany

June 2024
1min read

Two extraordinary sisters tell their story—a quiet epic that began in slavery days and isn’t over yet

When I met Sadie Delany and her sister, Bessie, in September 1991, I was on assignment for The New York Times , hoping to write a story on two elderly and reclusive sisters who had just celebrated their one hundred and second and one hundredth birthdays. In my hand I carried a letter written by their neighbor in Mount Vernon, New York, who had extended an invitation to come by and meet them. The Delany sisters had no phone, so I wasn’t entirely sure they knew exactly when I was coming. I was prepared to be turned away.

I knocked on the door. I waited and had raised my hand to knock again when suddenly the door swung open. The woman who answered, with her head held high, her eyes intense and penetrating, extended her hand in formal greeting. “I am Dr. Delany,” she said elegantly.

She ushered me into the house, and from across the room another elderly woman said sweetly, “Please come in, child. Won’t you sit down?” This was the elder sister, Sadie. I must have hesitated for a moment. “Go on, sit down,” Bessie urged. “Sit down as long as you like. We won’t charge you rent!” Then they both laughed uproariously at this little joke.

The daughters of a man born into slavery and a mother of mixed racial parentage who was born free, the sisters recall what it meant to be “colored” children in the late-nineteenth-century South. They grew up on a college campus, St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina, where their father was an Episcopal priest and vice principal. After years of teaching in the rural South to raise money, the Delany sisters managed to put themselves through college and then settled in Harlem, turning down marriage opportunities for careers.

Each sister developed her own way of coping with racism, Sadie expertly navigating the system, while Bessie believed in confrontation, regardless of the cost. “We are living proof that you don’t change one bit from cradle to grave,” Bessie likes to say.

The book from which this article is taken was woven from the thousands of anecdotes the Delany sisters told me in interviews that spanned eighteen months. The sequence of stories is mine, but the words are all theirs. At times the sisters’ versions of particular events were almost identical or told in joint fashion—with one sister beginning a sentence and the other finishing it—and so some sections bear both their names. In the others either Sadie or Bessie chronicles their life together with her own distinct spin, voice, and viewpoint. Their story, as the Delany sisters like to say, is not meant as “black” or “women’s” history but as American history. It belongs to all of us.

—Amy Hill Hearth Sadie sadie and Bessie Sadie Bessie Sadie and Bessie Sadie Bessie Sadie Bessie Sadie Bessie

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.