Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany, and her sister Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, became internationally known after the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the sisters as the world’s oldest authors. The Delany Sisters were children of a former slave and used his example to forge careers in education and dentistry respectively.
Sadie Delany, the oldest of the pair, was born September 18, 1889 in Lynch’s Station, Va. Her father, Rev. Henry Beard Delany, was the first Black Episcopal Church bishop in the United States, and her mother, Nanny Logan Delany, was an educator.
Her sister, Bessie Delany, was born September 3, 1891 in Raleigh, N.C. The parents had 10 children in all. The elder Delany sister was the first Black person permitted to teach domestic science in New York high schools. Her parents were faculty members at the St. Augustine School (now University) in Raleigh, and she lived on the campus with her family, attending school there.
She obtained her undergrad and master’s degrees from Columbia University in New York. The younger Delany sister was the second-Black female dentist licensed to practice in New York. She too was raised on the St. Augustine campus and followed in her sister’s footsteps to attend Columbia University, obtaining her dental degree.
Of the 170 students in her class, she was the only Black woman to do so. She worked alongside her brother, dentist Dr. H.B. Delany, in his office in New York. When civil rights activists met in the city, the Delaneys let them meet in their office to organize.
The Delany sisters worked from the 1920s until their retirements in the 1960s, blazing trails behind them as it was a rarity for Black women to earn advanced degrees and have careers at the time. They captured their battles with racism and sexism over the course of their lives in their book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years co-written with New York Times reporter Amy Hill Hearth.
Hearth interviewed the sisters in 1991, leading to the book in 1993. The book was popular, and a feat of the centenarians landed them in the Guinness Book with the publication of their second joint book The Delany Sisters’ Book Of Everyday Wisdom. The sisters were 105 and 103 at the time of publication.
The sisters never married, joking that their long lives were credited to never having husbands to, in their words, “worry them to death.” The younger sister passed in Mount Vernon, N.Y. at 104 in September 1995. The eldest sister, who wrote a third book about life without her sister, passed on January 25, 1999 in Mount Vernon as well. The Delany sisters first book was made into a Broadway play of the same name in 1995, touring nationwide.
In a 1999 CBS film, actresses the late Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll starred as Bessie and Sadie respectively. The film was executive-produced by Dr. Camille O. Cosby. In 2003, Hearth released a children’s book featuring the accomplishments of the Delany sisters.