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Calendar >  “Having Our Say – The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” A Look at Change in America

“Having Our Say – The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” A Look at Change in America

By   /  May 25, 2017  /  No Comments

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TR Robertson …What started out as a story in the New York Times in 1991 would grow into a best-selling book in 1993 and a play in 1995, all due to the significant accomplishments of two driven, independent, successful “colored” sisters, who happened to live to over 100 years old each. Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany and sister Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany were the subjects of a newspaper article written by Amy Hill Hearth in 1991 which would then develop into a two year project and a New York Times Best Seller book. The Delany sisters would then become the subjects of a play by Emily Mann, adapted from the book. Their story is amazing, mainly because they witnessed more history occurring around them than most humans can imagine. The sisters referred to themselves as either colored, Negro or black and said it never occurred to them to use African-American, as they felt they and everyone around them was American.

The play, “Having Our Say” is currently on stage at the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad under the direction of Melissa Coleman-Reed. The Delany sisters are played by veteran, accomplished actresses Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Milena (Sellers) Phillips. Both actresses are San Diego Theatre Critics Circle, Craig Noel Award winners as well as being nominated and winning numerous other theatre awards. The play is presented as an oral history with the sisters speaking directly to the audience, telling them about who they are, what they have been through, what their families were like and where they came from, all with a sense of humor, a touch of politics, and some words of wisdom all while preparing a dinner to celebrate their deceased father’s birthday. Sadie stated, “Some people grieve to remember, we celebrate.”

  • Bessie and Sadie enjoy a fun moment int he kitchen.

Photos by Rich Soublet

Ms. Thompson and Ms. Phillips immediately make the audience feel at ease, feel as if you are in a close friends home for coffee or tea and are about to hear stories from someone’s past. The scene was their small home in Mt. Vernon, New York, in 1991. The set was a dining room with large photos hanging on the wall of family members, two comfortable high back chairs facing the audience and a warm kitchen with photos on the fridge and food laid out they would be preparing later.  What we begin to learn is a wealth of information about the incredible life each of them experienced. The sisters tell tales about their grandparents, one of whom was white, Jordan Motley, who had married a colored woman, Eliza. Sadie and Bessie’s parents also had an astonishing background. Their father, Henry Delany, was born into slavery, taught to read and write while he lived on a plantation. By the time he was a young man, he had become the first black bishop in the United States for the Episcopal Church. Their mother, Nancy, was an educator and worked for the St. Augustine School in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the father served as the Vice Principal. Henry and Nancy would have eleven children. Bessie and Sadie would outlive all of their siblings. Their parents were progressive in the sense they wanted their daughters to experience the world around them and beyond. Bessie would become a doctor of dental surgery with credentials and degrees from Columbia University in 1923 and Sadie would obtain a Bachelor’s degree in 1920 from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in 1925. She told a story about obtaining her first teaching position by missing her interview and simply showing up on the first day of school for her job, surprising her colleagues as the first black woman to be hired to teach domestic science in a New York City public high school. Sadie qualified for a scholarship to obtain her Master’s degree, but turned the scholarship down, earning the money to pay for her education by selling candy and cupcakes at the school where she taught. Her father taught her, “If you take money from someone you will always owe them”. Bessie, for years, was one of only two black women in New York City to have a degree in dentistry.

Along the way, the sisters witnessed two world wars, a horrible depression, the war in Korea and Vietnam and decades of social changes. They were involved in several civil rights movements during the 1930’s and 1940’s, saying they were a little too old to take part in movements in the 60’s, but they did become involved in several social issues in New York. They referred to the Jim Crow Laws and the effect the laws had on the world around them. They both did not speak too kindly about the “Rebbie boys” (Rebels) they encountered during their life. Sadie said, “I can forgive, I can’t seem to forget.” The sisters spoke about witnessing all kinds of segregation issues, threats of lynching’s, separate drinking fountains, separate seating for transportation, restaurants and theaters. Sadie said she once drank out of a water fountain designated for whites just to see if the water tasted different. Bessie referred to herself in the following way, “I’m not black, I’m brown. I’m darker than she (Sadie) is and the darker you are the harder it is.” Her positive attitude is expressed when she said, “I’m just as good as anyone else. That’s the way I was brought up. I’ll tell you the truth, I think I’m better.” One of the funny moments in the play came when Bessie, when discussing black people striving to get ahead, stated, “If you’re average and black, you will have trouble; you need to be better. Look at Dan Quayle – if he was black he’d be washing dishes.”

A strong sense of family, a sense of humor, an undying desire to make their lives better and a willingness to help others all made the incredible life of these two sisters memorable. They loved meeting new people, Bessie jokingly said, “Lord, send us someone new, everyone we know is dead.” The sisters never married. They laughed when Sadie stated they lived to be a 100 years old and never married as husbands would worry them to death. Bessie stated another key to living to be 100+ was they took cod liver oil every day, ate a clove of garlic, did yoga, ate 7 different vegetables each day and prayed in the morning and in the evening. They also said “you need a reason to keep living.”

Later in their lives the sisters would care for an aging mother, who died at age 95, and two ill brothers. Parents who instilled a strong sense of values and morals point to the importance parents have on the direction a person will take as they grow up. Life was difficult for the Delany sisters, even though they had it better than most blacks at that time. They did not let the trials and tribulations they went through get them down. Bessie alluded to the fact that “we always loved our country, even though it didn’t always love us back.” Another funny moment in the play came when Bessie predicted that we would never have a black President, but would have a woman President first.

Bessie Delany would pass away at the age of 104 in 1995 and Sadie would live to be 109 before passing away in 1999. Before they died, the sisters, along with Amy Hearth, published The Book of Everyday Wisdom and Sadie and Hearth would publish On My Own at 107 – Reflections on Life without Bessie.

This is a wonderfully entertaining play, a history lesson of what it was like to be black in American over a huge span of time, and a lesson in the power of positive thinking and striving to make something of yourself. The play will be on the New Village Arts stage in Carlsbad until June 11. Tickets are available by going to info@newvillagearts.org or call 760-433-3245. Next up for NVA if “Buddy – The Buddy Holly story” beginning July 15th.

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  • Published: 7 years ago on May 25, 2017
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  • Last Modified: May 25, 2017 @ 9:47 pm
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