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Bessie

June 2024
5min read

I had always dreamed I would become a medical doctor, but I ran out of time and money. I was in my late twenties already, and I would have needed a few more credits to get into medical school. I was worried that by the time I earned the money and took those classes, I’d be too old.

My brother Harry was a dentist, and he was going to see if I could enroll at New York University, where he had graduated. But this was in 1918, and New York University would not take women in its dentistry program. Instead I enrolled at Columbia University. This was in the fall of 1919. There were eleven women out of a class of about one hundred and seventy. There were about six colored men. And then there was me. I was the only colored woman!

Most of the students at the dental school were selfassured city folk, and their families were paying their tuition. I never had the luxury of focusing completely on my studies. I always had money on my mind. My brothers were having the same difficulty, so they all worked their way through college as Pullman porters, which was one of the few jobs a Negro man could get. Hubert used to joke that he had earned an M.B.C. degree—Master’s of Baggage Carrying.

It was always harder for a Negro to get work than a white person. Even the street merchants of Harlem, in those days, were mostly white. There were certain companies that were nicer to colored people than others. For instance, everybody knew that Nestlé would hire Negroes, but Hershey wouldn’t. I used to walk through Harlem and scold any Negro eating a Hershey bar. Usually they would stop eating it, but sometimes they thought I was crazy. I do not allow Hershey candy in my home to this day.

As a woman you couldn’t be a Pullman porter, and I refused to work as a maid for white folks. So in the summer I would go with my little sister Julia, who had come up from Raleigh to study at Juilliard, to look for factory jobs. And you know what? They would want to hire Julia because she was lighter than me. But we made it clear it was both of us or neither of us, and sometimes we’d get the job.

One time, we were waiting on line to get factory work and this white man tried to give me a break. He said, “Oh, I see. You are Spanish.” This was supposed to be my cue to nod my head, since they’d hire you if you were “Spanish.” But this made me furious. I said, “No, I am not Spanish. I am an American Negro! ” I turned and walked out of there, and Julia followed me.

I studied very hard in dentistry school. My brother Harry —he was called Hap once he moved to New York—helped me out. He was a sweet brother. He loaned me some dental instruments, which were very expensive—things like that.

I remember like yesterday the first time our class had to do dissections. This was at the morgue at Bellevue Hospital in New York. The first two years of dental school at that time were identical to medical school, and we all had to do them. Sometimes there weren’t enough corpses to go around, and the dental students would fight for a head because, well, what we really wanted to study was the teeth and jaw. And some dental students got stuck with body parts that weren’t exactly relevant.

Well, that first day all the girls in the class were just a-squealing and a-screaming and a-carrying on. And I strode in there like I was born to do it. They all said, “Look at that Bessie Delany, why, she sure isn’t scared.” Truth is, I was a wreck. I had never touched a dead body before!

When we were children, the Webb family, who were farmers at St. Aug’s, had a baby that died, and this little girl at the school named Maggie dared Sadie to touch that baby. People weren’t propped up in funeral homes the way they are today. You were wrapped in a shroud and laid out in your own parlor, and that’s where this baby was. Afterward I said to Sadie, “Well, what was it like?” And Sadie said, “Ooh, it was just like touching a piece of marble, hard and cold.”

Well, I kept thinking about that poor, marblelike baby while I dissected my first cadaver. I was determined to be the best dentist there ever was.

As a colored teacher, I always got the meanest kids. Except once. That was the year they had me mixed up with a white woman named Delany.

Some of the professors treated me just fine, especially the dean of students. But one time I was accused of stealing. Me! Bessie Delany! Honey, I had never stolen nothin’ in my life. This is what happened: There was a white girl who was taking expensive dental instruments. Even my things started disappearing, one by one. It was puzzling. They cost a lot of money, and I took great pains not to lose them. So none of us could understand where this stuff was going off to.

This girl was a dental student, and we learned later that her boyfriend, also a dental student, had talked her into stealing these tools. He was selling them somewhere in New York. Well, it got to the point where they brought in police detectives. And we were summoned in the hallway where our lockers were, and the police asked me to open my locker, and they searched it.

We were all gathered around, and I saw that this girl—her name was Rose—was standing closest to my locker. When it was opened, behind her back she sort of casually tossed a dental instrument in there. No one saw it but me, and I said in a loud voice, “Rose, what did you toss into my locker?” And the detective and everyone else realized what she had done, and she was caught. She was trying to frame me! And she knew she’d have gotten away with it because it would be easy for everyone to believe that this little darky was a thief.

Would you believe that Rose and her boyfriend were allowed to finish dental school? They graduated! Honey, if it had been me, I would have been expelled. I would have gone to jail.

I’ll tell you something else that annoyed me. When they opened my locker, everybody was surprised at how neat it was. They thought Negroes were dirty, sloppy people, but my locker was perfectly clean and neat, and my one uniform—the only one I could afford—was scrubbed, starched, and ironed. The other girls’ lockers were pigsties. And the dean said, “Look at Miss Delany’s locker! It is an example to you all.”

After I graduated, I was known in the Negro community as Dr. Bessie to distinguish me from my brother Hap, who was known as Dr. Delany. There was a time in the nineteen twenties, thirties, and forties in Harlem when just about every living soul knew of Dr. Bessie. My patients would go on vacation and send postcards addressed only to “Dr. Bessie, New York City,” and I would get those cards.

In those days folks were probably more attached to their dentists than today. They saw more of their dentists because their teeth were worse, generally. Today there’s fluoride in the water and better toothbrushes and floss, plus people are better educated about oral hygiene than they used to be.

Hap invited me to share an office with him and another dentist, Dr. Chester Booth, at 2305 Seventh Avenue—that’s the corner of Seventh Avenue at 135th Street. We were on the second floor, above the Corn Exchange Bank, which later became the Chemical Bank.

This was the center of Harlem. From the office window you could see everything that was going on. Harlem was like a beehive, with people running every which way, going to work, school, or entertainment. During the week I had no free time for myself. I had to get up at daybreak and go to the office and clean and disinfect it since I was always too exhausted at the end of the day to sterilize things properly. To save money I walked ten blocks to work rather than ride the trolley or the subway, which cost five cents. I’d walk home again after cleaning the office, then bathe and walk back to the office in time to open up at nine o’clock, looking fresh out of a bandbox. A lot of my patients were poor and worked during the day, so often it was midnight or one o’clock in the morning by the time I was done.

When I started my practice in 1923,1 charged two dollars for a cleaning, two dollars for an extraction, five dollars for a silver filling, and ten dollars for a gold filling. When I retired in 1950, I was still charging the same rate. I never raised my rates because I was getting by OK. I was always very proud of my work, and that was enough for me.

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