Ask Alma's Owl: Centenarian Columbians on Stage

November 16, 2016
Sadie and Bessie Delany

Bessie and Sadie, as pictured on the cover of their 1993 book, Having Our Say.

Dear Alma,

Is it true that a pair of Columbia graduates were featured in a Tony-nominated Broadway play?

—Curious Dentist

Dear Curious Dentist,

Yes, sort of. In 1991, The New York Times wrote a profile of a remarkable pair of sisters, two centenarian African American “maiden ladies.” Sarah (Sadie) Delany, 103 years old, and her younger sister Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, 100, living alone and sharp as tacks, recounted their life as two of 10 children born in North Carolina to a former slave who became the first African American bishop.

After they moved to New York City during World War I, both women earned advanced degrees at Columbia at a time when the University enrolled few students of color and fewer women. They became pioneering black professionals in the 1920s, witnessing the growth of New York’s African American community from the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance through the civil rights era and into the modern age, where they met figures such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.

By the time the newspaper story about them was published, they were long retired and living together in Mount Vernon, N.Y. The interest in their lives sparked by that story led to a 1993 book, Having Our Say, which spent 105 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. In 1995, it was turned into a Tony-nominated Broadway play. A 1999 television movie starring Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee won a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.

Their lives were certainly worthy of the attention. Bessie Delany wanted to follow in the footsteps of her brother, who had graduated from New York University’s dental school in 1918, but the school didn’t admit women. The next year she applied to the Columbia School of Dental and Oral Surgery, becoming one of only 11 women, and the only African American woman, out of 170 students.

According to a recent book commemorating the school’s centennial by the school’s dean emeritus, Allan J. Formicola, Bessie Delany felt supported by the dean and most of of her teachers, but there was one professor who failed her. A white female student offered to submit the same work under her name, and sure enough, she passed. Delany graduated in 1923, only the second African American woman to receive a dental license from New York State, and set up her practice in Harlem.

Sadie Delany got a bachelor’s degree from Teacher’s College in 1920, and then her master’s five years later. “I was very happy at Columbia,” she said in her book. “Bessie had a much harder time there…I did not encounter as much prejudice.” After her graduation, Sadie Delany applied for her first teaching job by mail, and received her appointment the same way.

When she showed up for work on her first day, the school’s administrators were shocked to discover they had hired an African American woman. She became the first African American woman to teach home economics in a New York City public school.

The Delanys lived long enough to see how their lives inspired others. Bessie died in 1995 at age 104, outlived by Sadie, who died five years later at 109.

—By Gary Shapiro

Send your questions for Alma’s Owl to curecord@columbia.edu