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Having her say on injustice

Amy Hill Hearth's outrage at injustice and keen interest in writing collided when she was 10 years old, living in Columbia, S.C. The year was 1968, the schools were still segregated, and Hearth's assignment was to write a report on a book about a heroic American. She chose Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led others to freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War.

"The teacher told me to write about someone else or she would flunk me," Ms. Hearth recalls, adding that Betsy Ross was suggested as a more worthy American.

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The youngster refused. Her mother, shocked by what she regarded as blatantly unfair treatment, managed to persuade the teacher to accept the report on Tubman.

Years later, this incident helped inform Hearth's decision to write a children's version of the book she had collaborated on with two accomplished African-American women, "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" (Bantam, 1993). The new book, "The Delany Sisters Reach High," draws on episodes from their lives that young people can relate to.

"Children love to read true stories," Hearth says, "and there are still so few positive ones accurately written about African-Americans." Sarah Delany, known as Sadie, was the first African-American teacher of domestic science in New York City public high schools, and Dr. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany was only the second African-American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York state.

One motivation for Hearth was her dismay at "our current culture of disrespect." Black children, in particular, she says, are exposed to a barrage of negative media images of people who look like them.

"White children see that as well," she says, "and it forms their opinions of black people. 'Reach High' is a positive view of one segment of African-American life - the tiny, elite, educated population that flourished in the Victorian era. The values remain relevant."

When Hearth broached the idea of adapting "Having Our Say" for children to the Delany sisters (both of whom have since died), she says their reaction was complete amazement. "When they were growing up, of course, there was no such thing as a children's book about black people."

Today many children's books are profiles of entertainers and athletes. Or they are infused with urban hip hop culture - considered by some to be the successor to the 1960s civil rights movement. But it was schoolchildren's responses, as Hearth crisscrossed the country promoting "Having Our Say," that guided her in selecting the 10 vignettes from the Delanys' upbringing.

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"Children, in general, are very sensitive to justice issues," Hearth says. "They respond passionately and with outrage to the concept of Jim Crow."

They are also fascinated by how long the sisters lived and by their relationship with each other - "the sweet older sister and the bossy younger one."

Hearth co-wrote two sequels to "Having Our Say" and also served as artistic consultant to the Broadway version, produced by Bill and Camille Cosby, which was nominated for a Tony award.

The Delanys, who never married, willed their portion of the book royalties to a pension fund for retired Episcopal ministers. Their father, Henry Delany, was the first African-American elected bishop in the Episcopal church.

"I love older people with an unusual story to tell," says Hearth, who was close to her own centenarian grandmother. "I call writing about them 'giving voice to the voiceless.' "

'Reach High' arrives

Growing up in the late 1890s on the campus of the predominantly all-black Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., Sadie and Bessie Delany were encouraged by their parents to carry themselves with dignity, treat others with kindness, and "reach high" in all their endeavors.

That expression is the inspiration for a long-awaited children's book about these remarkable women, "The Delany Sisters Reach High" by Amy Hill Hearth.

Hearth first brought the shy yet feisty Delanys to national attention in 1993 with the groundbreaking book, "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years." It was hailed as a rare look at the country's educated African-American middle class that flourished after the Civil War but was curtailed by the start of Jim Crow segregation laws.

Since its initial publication, "Having Our Say" has sold nearly 5 million copies. It has been translated into seven languages. It became a Tony-nominated Broadway play and an award-winning made-for-TV movie.

Most important, "Having Our Say" found its way into college and high school curricula and helped generate interest among elementary educators in a children's edition. So, after nine years of lectures, book signings, and school assemblies, plus taking time out to write another book ("In a World Gone Mad," about Polish Holocaust survivors) Hearth turned her attention to a children's version.

The result is a series of historically accurate and vividly illustrated experiences from the pair's formative years. Hearth's collaborator is artist Tim Ladwig, who specializes in drawing the African-American experience for young readers.

One of the defining moments in "Reach High" occurs in Pullen Park in Raleigh.

" 'Look, Bessie!' Sadie said when they got to the well. Someone had put up a sign that read 'White' on one side and 'Colored' on the other. It was another one of those new Jim Crow laws!

"Sadie felt like crying, but Bessie got mad. She took the dipper, scooped some water from the white side, and drank it! Sadie was scared Bessie would get into trouble, but she admired her little sister's courage."

Adult readers already familiar with the Delanys will find other touchstone experiences in "Reach High" that illumine one family's unwavering effort to raise their children with good moral values and high standards for achievement despite the challenging environment.

With this book, Hearth has added a significant title to the spectrum of children's literature.

It is accompanied by an author's note about the Delanys' later years that serves as an invaluable introduction to those who are meeting these fascinating women in print for the first time.


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