Amy Hill Hearth first met centenarians Sarah (Sadie) Delany and Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany when she was a reporter for the New York Times. Interested in their century’s worth of stories, Hearth tried to contact them for an interview for the paper, but this proved difficult: the reclusive sisters, who lived in Mount Vernon, New York, had never installed a phone. But the Delanys’ neighbor eventually contacted the New York Times and arranged to have Hearth meet the sisters. Dr. Bessie Delany, a proud and elegant woman who was once a well-known Harlem dentist, was 100. Sadie Delany, the first black home-economics teacher at a public high school in New York City, was 102.
Hearth’s interest in the Delany sisters stemmed from her family background and personal interests. In the 1990s, her grandmother was also nearing the century mark, and Hearth was accustomed to being around very elderly people. Hearth, like the Delanys, had a sister close in age. Originally from the North, Hearth, a white woman of German-American descent, had spent first through sixth grades in South Carolina with her family, and her experience in the South spurred her interest in African-American history and civil rights. Also, she’d always enjoyed writing about pairs of people. Her husband, Blair Hearth, was a Methodist minister and teacher, which helped endear the couple to the sisters, whose father had been the first elected black bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, as well as a vice principal. The Delanys felt comfortable entrusting Hearth with their history.
Hearth’s article, published on September 22, 1991, prompted the publisher of Kodansha International to suggest that Hearth write a book on the sisters. After being convinced that their stories were indeed worth recording, the Delanys entertained Hearth with their stories several times a week for eighteen months. “This is fun! We are having our say!” Bessie would say as she and Sadie talked. Though Hearth calls the book an “oral history,” she used a tape recorder for only the first few months of her talks with the Delanys. The words in Having Our Say are not verbatim transcripts of what the sisters said but anecdotes that Hearth wrote down, then wove together to make up the book’s chapters.
Though Hearth intended mostly to preserve two valuable historical accounts, Having Our Say wound up on the New York Times best-seller list for 105 weeks. The story was adapted for a Peabody Award-winning television film produced by Dr. Camille O. Cosby and Judith R. James, and for a Tony Award-nominated Broadway play by Emily Mann. The Delanys and Hearth followed up with a second book, The Delany Sisters’ Book of Everyday Wisdom, and Hearth also wrote a children’s biography of the sisters, The Delany Sisters Reach High.
The Delanys were amused by their book’s success, but their lifestyle stayed the same. Hearth worked hard to preserve their privacy, though Hillary Rodham Clinton, the new First Lady in the early 1990s, was permitted a visit. The Delanys gave the money they earned from their books to charity, including $1 million to Saint Augustine’s College (formerly School), where their parents had taught and where they had grown up.
When Bessie died at home at age 104, Sadie and Hearth wrote On My Own at 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie. Sadie died at 109, at home, just as Bessie had.