Surviving Delany Sister Laid to Rest in North Carolina

Episcopal News Service. February 19, 1999 [99-010]

E.T. Malone, Jr., Communications Officer for the Diocese of North Carolina

(ENS) Sarah Louise Delany, last surviving child of Bishop Henry Beard Delany, was laid to rest in Raleigh, North Carolina, February 1 in Mount Hope Cemetery on a quiet hillside in the city where she was born 109 years ago.

Miss Delany, known familiarly as "Sadie," was thrust into the national limelight in the last decade of her life after she and her centenarian sister Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany, a retired dentist, in 1993 authored a book called Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. It recounted their experiences growing up in the segregated South and later in New York during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

They had been "discovered" by Amy Hill Hearth, a writer on assignment for The New York Times, who had visited them in 1991 to write a feature story about these unusual sisters who had both passed the 100-year mark and still lived together alone in their own home. Fascinated with their intelligence, wit, and humor, and realizing the uniqueness of their view of 20th century American history, Hearth convinced the Delany sisters to tell their story and she helped them write the book.

Instantly popular, the volume found itself on The New York Times best-seller list and spawned a theatre version that toured the country. Hearth worked with the sisters to publish The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom in 1994. After her sister Elizabeth's death in 1995, Sadie Delany, at age 107, wrote a third book called On My Own. Ironically, just two days after her funeral, the theatre version of Having Our Say was scheduled to be performed by the Playmakers Repertory Company in nearby Chapel Hill.

Fifth generation speaks

Brandi Delany, the 18-year-old great-grandniece of Sadie, said in a brief eulogy before the packed funeral congregation at St. Augustine's Chapel that she was not sad. "I grew up knowing of her as Aunt Sadie, a lady lively for her age. It wasn't until reading the book that I really learned about what Aunt Sadie and Dr. Bessie accomplished. They were not just a home economics teacher and a dentist, but pioneers. Aunt Sadie was the kind of strong woman that I aspire to become. It is appropriate that we say goodbye to her on the campus of St. Augustine's College, where she always felt at home."

Delany, born September 19, 1889, was one of 10 children of Henry Beard Delany (1858-1928) and Nanny Logan Delany (1861-1956). Her father, born a slave, graduated from St. Augustine's College in Raleigh and was employed there as a teacher, later becoming vice-president. He was called to the Episcopal priesthood and in 1918 consecrated as Suffragan Bishop of North Carolina, the first African-American ever elected bishop in the Episcopal Church. Continuing to reside in the Delany cottage on the St. Augustine's campus, he served as bishop until his death 10 years later. Mrs. Delany was matron of the school, teaching what was then called "domestic sciences," and the Delany Building, still in use today, was named in her honor.

Cheerleaders for change

Following in her mother's footsteps, Sadie Delany became the first home economics teacher of color in the New York Public School System. Bessie became only the second woman of color licensed to practice dentistry in New York. They both taught school in the South for years to save money to move to New York, where Sadie received her undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1920 and her master's degree in 1925. The sisters were lifelong companions and never married, attributing their long lives to the fact that "we never had husbands to worry us to death."

Already elderly by the time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they were active cheerleaders of change in American society. When their first book was published, they urged that it be viewed not as black history, or feminine history, but as American history.

Although they met many celebrities, the sisters stuck to their beliefs. "The whole time in Harlem, we lived the same way that we did in Raleigh," Sadie wrote. "We didn't change our values or behavior one bit. Every Sunday was the Lord's day, and you could find us, sure as daylight, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church. We were very proud of the Delany name, and because of our self-discipline it came to mean in Harlem what it had meant in North Carolina -- that is, it stood for integrity."

[thumbnail: Sadie Delany laid to rest...]