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Two Black Sisters Look Back 100 Years

SADIE and Bessie Delany live in a house on a dead-end street in Mount Vernon, N.Y. At age 104 and 102, respectively, they still do their own cooking, cleaning, and shopping.

``Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years'' chronicles the lives of these two black women and their family from the 1890s to the 1990s. It is filled with anecdotes about their experiences growing up in the South during Jim Crow segregation, their migration to Harlem in the early part of this century, and the challenges they faced as middle-class black women moving to a white suburb. The book is told in the sisters' own words as recounted to journalist Amy Hill Hearth.

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What makes it so engaging is that these storytellers are eloquent, charming individuals who have crystal-clear memories of events that happened long ago.

Bessie remembers working as a dentist in an office on Seventh Avenue in Harlem: ``I was known in the Negro community as `Dr. Bessie'.... There was a time, in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s in Harlem when just about every living soul knew of Dr. Bessie. My patients would go on vacation and send postcards addressed only to `Dr. Bessie, New York City' and I would get those cards.... Harlem was like a beehive, with people running every which way, going to work, school, or to entertainment. It was a positive place.''

Sadie, Bessie, and their eight brothers and sisters grew up on the sheltered campus of St. Augustine's School, a college for blacks in Raleigh, N.C. Their father was an Episcopal minister, born into slavery, and their mother was of mixed-race parentage. All 10 children went through college; while Bessie became a dentist, Sadie became the first black to teach domestic science (home economics) in the New York City public high schools.

Sadie and Bessie, neither of whom married, are as different as sugar and spice, and each dealt with racism in her own way. Sadie was the sweet, calm, nonconfrontational sister. Bessie wasn't afraid to speak her mind. That got her in trouble while waiting for a train in Georgia in 1913.

She was sitting in a colored waiting room when a drunk white man opened the door, leered at her, and made lewd comments. When she burst out ``Oh, why don't you shut up and go wait with your own kind in the white waiting room?'' he shouted that a ``nigger'' had insulted him, and drew a crowd of whites.

Bessie was fortunate that a train rounded the corner just then, breaking up the crowd, and allowing her to leave. ``Thousands of Negroes had been lynched for far less than what I had just done,'' she remembers.

Just before World War I, Sadie and Bessie joined the thousands of blacks who moved to Harlem seeking a better life. They later lived in the Bronx - at that time considered the country - with their mother before moving to Mount Vernon.

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The sisters say they have lived so long because they haven't had husbands to look after. They also attribute their longevity to clean living, good eating habits, and exercise. Monday through Friday, they follow a yoga program on TV. ``Sometimes, Bessie cheats,'' Sadie says. ``I'll be doing an exercise and look over at her, and she's just lying there! She's a naughty old gal.''

The sisters agreed to write the book in order to pass down their history to another generation. Says the feisty Bessie: ``I never thought I'd see the day when people would be interested in hearing what two old Negro women have to say. Life still surprises me. So maybe the last laugh's on me.''

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