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Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years

Sarah Louise Delany and Annie Elizabeth Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

Having Our Say is an oral history conducted by Amy Hill Hearth with the centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany. The book is divided into a preface and seven parts. In the preface, Hearth describes how the Delanys first charm her when she writes about them for the New York Times and how she eventually convinces them to share their stories in a book. After the preface, Hearth disappears from the narrative. She provides context for the Delanys’ stories at the beginning of each section but otherwise acts strictly as a listener. When the sisters tell a story together, or in an almost identical fashion, Hearth attributes the chapters to them both. When the sisters have distinctive viewpoints or ways of telling a story, Hearth attributes the chapter to either Bessie or Sadie. Though the book’s seven parts generally follow a chronological pattern, the sisters occasionally discuss the present day (the early 1990s). They compare different eras of history; make judgments with their century of experience; and frequently discuss racism, sexism, and aging.

Throughout the stories, the sisters talk about their childhoods in the segregated South, where the “rebby boys,” or racist white men, are a constant menace. The sisters have very different personalities. Sadie is an obedient mama’s child, and Bessie is strong-willed and outspoken. Both sisters are determined and intelligent. The sisters describe their parents, Henry Beard Delany and Nanny James Logan, who grew up during and after the Civil War. Following the “Surrender” came the difficult days of the Reconstruction, when poverty and a struggle for power ruled the South. Henry was born into slavery. When the Surrender came, his family began a free life with nothing. The Delanys were luckier than most black families because they were together and they could read. Nanny’s family faced discrimination because her father was white and her mother was a quarter black. Though Nanny appeared white, she was considered “colored,” and her own parents couldn’t marry. Nanny and Henry met at Saint Augustine’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Henry eventually became vice principal of “Saint Aug’s.” The Delany parents had ten children, including Sadie and Bessie.

Sadie and Bessie encounter racism early in life. The Jim Crow laws throughout the South required separate facilities for whites and blacks, and on the trolley to Pullen Park, a driver tells the Delany family to sit in the back. The spring where they drink water at the park is divided, with one side for whites and the other for blacks, and the drugstore where they used to buy limeade will no longer serve them. Despite all the obstacles, all the Delany children plan to go to college. To pay for school, both Sadie and Bessie take jobs as teachers. Sadie is a Jeanes Supervisor, setting up domestic science programs in rural schools, and she takes Booker T. Washington on tours of her school district. Bessie teaches first in rural North Carolina, then in Georgia. In Georgia, she is nearly lynched on her way to her new job when she stands up to a drunken white man in a train station waiting room. Both women date, but their father is critical of their beaux, and Nanny tells Bessie that she will have to choose between work and a family.

Sadie moves to Harlem in 1916, and Bessie follows nearly two years later. All the Delany children except Lemuel eventually migrate to Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance, a time of literary experimentation and cutting-edge jazz music, is in full swing. Although they sometimes go to nightclubs and know many famous personalities through their brother Hubert, a New York City political figure, the sisters focus on their careers. Sadie attends Pratt Institute, then Columbia University, where she receives a master’s degree. She becomes the first black woman to teach domestic science at public high schools in New York City. Bessie studies dentistry at Columbia University and opens a practice in Harlem. She shares an office with her brother Hap, and the place becomes a meeting point for thinkers such as E. Franklin Frazier. Bessie narrowly avoids an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island and becomes an outspoken protestor against racial discrimination. The family is devastated when Henry Beard Delany dies in 1928. Nanny moves to Harlem and begins to go on trips with Sadie. The black community is particularly hard-hit by the Depression, but the Delanys cope.

During World War II, the Delany sisters are concerned with their nephew, Little Hubie. Little Hubie is born “damaged” (which is the extent of the explanation the sisters give for his condition) and dies when he is ten years old. Manross Delany fights in the war and faces discrimination in the U.S. armed forces. Sadie, Bessie, and their mother move to a cottage in the Bronx and enjoy cultivating their own garden. Nanny is too elderly to stay home by herself, so Bessie retires at fifty-nine to take care of her. Before she dies, Nanny meets Eleanor Roosevelt. Around this time, the civil rights movement is underway, and the Jim Crow laws at last begin to unravel. The deaths of their mother and a number of their brothers grieve the sisters. They decide to move to Mount Vernon, a mostly white suburb in New York. At their advanced age, the Delany sisters are part of a quiet revolutionary movement to integrate white suburbs. Sadie and Bessie discuss aging and the fears and fearlessness that accompany that process.

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