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Sadie And Bessie

April 2024
7min read

On February 5, 1858, our papa, Henry Beard Delany, was born into slavery on a plantation owned by the Mock family in St. Marys, Georgia, on the coast near the Florida border. He was just a little bitty fellow—seven years old—when the Surrender came in 1865. “The Surrender” is the way Papa always referred to the end of the Civil War.

We used to ask Papa, “What do you remember about being a slave?” Well, like a lot of former slaves, he didn’t say much about it. We persisted, and finally Papa told us of the day his people were freed. He remembered being in the kitchen and wearing a little apron, which little slave boys wore in those days. It had one button at the top, at the back of the neck, and the ends were loose. And when the news of 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!”

Now, Papa’s family were house niggers, and the Mocks had been very good to them. Mrs. Mock thought a heap of Papa’s mother, Sarah, who was I born on the plantation on the fifth of January, 1814. Why, Mrs. Mock had even let Sarah have a wedding ceremony in the front parlor. It was a double wedding; Sarah’s twin sister, Mary, married at the same time. Of course, these weren’t legal marriages, since it was against the law for slaves to get married. But it was a ceremony, and Sarah was joined in matrimony to Thomas Sterling Delany. This was about 1831. Altogether, Sarah and Thomas had eleven children, and our papa was the youngest.

Papa was in the kitchen when the news of the Surrender came, and he ran about the house yelling, “Freedom! Freedom! I am free! I am free!”

The Mocks let the Delanys keep their name and even broke Georgia law by teaching Papa and his brothers and sisters to read and write. Maybe the Mocks thought the Delanys wouldn’t leave after the Surrender came. But they did, and they each didn’t have but the shirt on their backs. They crossed the St. Marys River and set down roots in Fernandina Beach, Florida. Papa told us that each day they would wash their only shirt in the river and hang it up to dry, then put it on again after it had dried in the sun.

Those were hard times, after slavery days. Most of the slaves, when they were freed, wandered about the countryside like shell-shocked soldiers. Papa said everywhere you went you saw Negroes asking, begging for something. The Delanys were among only a handful of former slaves in those parts who didn’t end up begging. Papa was proud of this, beyond words.

Papa and his brothers all learned a trade. Following in the shoes of one of his older brothers, Papa became a mason. His brother was known in the South for being able to figure the number of bricks it would take to build a house. People would send him drawings, and that fellow could figure out in his head exactly how many bricks it would take. Another of Papa’s brothers was said to be the first Negro harbor pilot in America, and his older sister, Mary, taught school, mostly at night to poor colored men who worked all day in the field.

Papa was already a grown man, in his early twenties, when one day the Reverend Owen Thackara, a white Episcopal priest, said to him, “Young man, you should go to college.” Reverend Thackara helped Papa go to St. Augustine’s School way north in Raleigh, in the great state of North Carolina.

Well, Papa did not disappoint anyone. He was as smart as he could be, and blessed with a personality that smoothed the waters. He soon met a fellow student named Nanny James Logan, the belle of the campus. She was a pretty gal and very popular, despite the fact that she was smarter than all the boys and became class valedictorian.

Miss Logan, who would one day be our mama, was born in Virginia in a community called Yak, seven miles outside Danville. Today they call it Mountain Hill. Guess they think that sounds better than Yak.

Miss Nanny Logan was a feisty thing, a trait that she could have gotten from either of her parents. Her father, James Miliam, was 100 percent white and the meanest-looking man in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Because he was white, he could not legally marry his ladylove, Nanny’s mother, an issue-free Negro named Martha Logan. An issue-free Negro was a person who had some Negro ancestry but whose mother was a free person. If the mother was free, the child was free; if the mother was a slave, the child was a slave.

This is what we were told by our mama: A fellow named John Logan, who was white, was an Army officer called away to fight during the War of 1812. While he was gone, his wife took up with a Negro slave on their plantation. She was already the mother of seven daughters by her husband, and her romance with the slave produced two more daughters. When the husband returned, he forgave his wife— forgave her! —and adopted the two mulatto girls as his own. They even took his last name, Logan. No one remembers what happened to the slave, except he must’ve left town in a big hurry. This slave and this white woman were our great-great-grandparents.

Everybody knew that Nestle would hire Negroes but Hershey wouldn’t. I used to walk through Harlem and scold anyone eating a Hershey bar.

The two little mulatto girls, Patricia and Eliza, were just part of the family. The only time anyone has heard tell of their older, white half-sisters mistreating them was when those white girls were old enough to start courting and they used to hide their little colored half-sisters! One time they hid them in a hogshead barrel, and after their gentlemen callers left, they couldn’t get them out! Patricia was entirely stuck, and they had to use an ax on that old barrel to get her out. Well, they slipped and cut Patricia’s leg, and she carried that scar on her knee to the grave.

Patricia’s sister, Eliza, meantime, had become involved with a white man named Jordan Motley. They had a child—Martha Louise Logan, our grandma, born in 1842. Eliza had three other daughters: Blanche, LaTisha, and Narcissa. Those four girls were all only one-quarter Negro, but in the eyes of the world they were colored. It only took one drop of Negro blood for a person to be considered colored. So Martha Logan and her sisters were in a bind when it came to marrying. If they wanted to marry a colored man, well, most of them were slaves. And they couldn’t marry white because it was illegal for Negroes and whites to marry in Virginia at that time, and for many years after. Well, that didn’t stop them from having love relationships. Martha Logan took up with a man named James Miliam, who was as white as he could be. We remember our grandparents well because we used to go visit every summer, and we were young women when they died.

Mr. Miliam built a log cabin for Grandma a few hundred feet from his clapboard house, on the sixty-eight acres he owned in Yak. He even built a walkway between the two houses so he could go see Grandma without getting his boots muddy. Now this kind of arrangement was unusual between a white man and a colored woman. More common was when a white man had a white wife and a colored mistress on the side. But James Miliam had no white wife and was entirely devoted to Grandma. They weren’t legally married, but they lived like man and wife for fifty years.

Mr. Miliam was one tough fella, and that’s no lie. He was about six feet four inches at a time when most men were about a foot shorter. When he was a very young man, he had a job rolling huge hogsheads full of tobacco from the countryside to Richmond. Usually it took two men to roll the barrel. But James Miliam could roll one by himself. All of his adult life he carried a pistol in a shoulder holster, for all the world to see. He was a meanlooking dude.

That was a time when a colored woman wasn’t safe in the least. Men could do anything to a colored woman, and they wouldn’t get in trouble with the law, not one bit. Well, James Miliam let the word out that if anyone messed with his ladylove, why, he’d track ‘em down and blow their head off, and everyone in Pittsylvania County knew he meant it.

Every Sunday Grandma would walk to the White Rock Baptist Church for services. One time there was a movement in the church to throw her out, on account of her relationship with Mr. Miliam. But one of the deacons stood up and defended her. He reminded the congregation that those two would have been legally married if they could. And anyway, James Miliam couldn’t help being white. So they let Grandma keep coming to that church.

Grandma and Mr. Miliam had two daughters: Eliza, born in 1859, and Nanny James, our mama, born two years later, on June 23, 1861. Eliza got married young, but Nanny—our mama—was set on getting an education. She had been inspired, at the little one-room schoolhouse, by a teacher named Miss Fannie Coles. Nanny admired Miss Fannie Coles so much that she would take her own lunch and give it to Miss Coles every day as a gift. So Mama set her sights on going to St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Grandma was sixty-six when she died in 1908, which was old in those days. She had predicted Mr. Miliam would not last long without her, and she was right. Despite our efforts to keep him happy, he died just two years later, in 1910. He was about seventy years old. Before they buried him, Mama had a decision to make concerning that pistol he always carried with him. Seems everybody in Pittsylvania County coveted that pistol, and all kinds of folks stepped forward and asked to buy it. Mama’s own sons, our six brothers, had their eyes on it too. Someone suggested that Mama just bury it with old Mr. Miliam and be done with it, and that’s what she did. Well, what happened next was this: Somebody went in there and robbed that grave. Dug him up! And when they couldn’t get the gun loose from that holster, they just tore his whole arm right off in order to get that gun. It just about broke Mama’s heart.

Our mama was always a bit embarrassed that her parents were not—could not have been—legally married. She was determined that she was going to have a legal marriage someday. She got her pick of beaus at St. Aug’s, and it didn’t matter to her in the least that her favorite was a lot darker than she was. Some colored women who were as light as Mama would not have gotten involved with a dark-skinned man, but Mama didn’t care. She said he was the cream of the crop, a man of the highest quality. Our papa felt the same way about her, and he and Miss Logan were married at the chapel at St. Aug’s on the sixth of October, 1886.

Lemuel Thackara Delany, their firstborn, arrived the next year, on September 12, 1887. He was named after the white Episcopal priest who helped Papa go to college. Every two years after Lemuel’s birth, there was a new baby: Sadie in 1889, Bessie in 1891, Julia Emery in 1893, Henry Jr. (“Harry”) in 1895, Lucius in 1897, William Manross in 1899, Hubert Thomas in 1901, Laura Edith in 1903, and Samuel Ray in 1906. Laura is the only one besides us that is still living. She is our baby sister and lives in California. All of our brothers and our sister Julia have gone on to Glory.

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