As we prepare once more to commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., and to celebrate Black History Month, I am grateful to have encountered the Delany sisters. Sarah "Sadie" Delany is 104 years old. Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany is 102.
The sisters share the distinction of being among the few people on earth who can make the observation that Halley's comet was disappointing the second time around. But they have seen much more in their century apiece of living. In the sweep of their lives they experienced the birth of legalized segregation, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement.
Their father, who was born a slave in Georgia, became the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. Close ties and faith were at the heart of a family life that included 10 children.
Bessie became a dentist, and Sadie an educator. Though both had many suitors, they decided not to marry in order to focus on their careers. "It didn't occur to me that you could be married and have a career," says Bessie in their bestselling book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.
The sisters speak affectionately of one another and the differences between them that bring balance to their life together. They talk of themselves as "molasses and vinegar" - "Sweet Sadie" and "Queen Bess."
When Bessie was only 5, she drank from a water fountain labeled "Whites Only" in protest of newly instituted Jim Crow laws. When white missionaries gave her and Sadie expensive china dolls, Bessie mixed paint until she got a color that matched her own skin and painted her doll's face.
In later life, she never backed away from an opportunity to challenge injustice. She was almost lynched for confronting a white man who harassed her while she was waiting for a train. "We loved our country," says Bessie, "even though it didn't love us back."
Sadie operated more subtly. When she knew she would be turned down for a teaching position at a white high school because of her race, she skipped an interview and sent a letter explain ing that there had been a mix-up. She simply showed up for the first day of classes. Her plan worked: "Once I was in, they couldn't figure out how to get rid of me."
As a black female dentist, Bessie faced her share of racism and sexism. She was an activist for both women's and black rights. But her heart was mostly in the struggle for racial equality. "I would have given life or limb to the cause. I wanted justice for my people, or at least a better life, a fair shake!" She says it's important to vote: "If you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain. And, honey, I surely do not want to give up my right to complain, no, sir!" She adds, "It took me a hundred years to figure out I can't change the world. I can only change Bessie. And, honey, that ain't easy, either....I don't know how Sadie's put up with this old flabbermouth for the past one hundred years."
AS YOUNG WOMEN, the Delany sisters decided to dabble in the stock market. People laughed at them, since women weren't supposed to do such things. One of Bessie's dental patients suggested Creole Petroleum Company, and they bought two and a half shares each. When Exxon bought out the company, they were "bullied," according to Sadie, into selling their shares.
Bessie predicted that Exxon would be in for "some big trouble, someday" for running roughshod over them. "That's why Bessie and I weren't the least bit surprised when Exxon went and spilled all that oil up in Alaska and everyone in the whole world was just disgusted with them," says Sadie. "Bessie said to me, 'See, I told you so.'"
The sisters do yoga and eat a clove of garlic every day. They usually avoid liquor, although Bessie confesses to making Jell-O with wine instead of water occasionally. They still observe their father's birthday 65 years after his death, making his favorite meal of chicken and gravy and a birthday cake.
They pray twice a day for everyone, dead or alive, in their large extended family. "The ones that Bessie doesn't approve of get extra prayers," says Sadie. "Bessie can be very kind, though she usually saves her kind side for children and animals." Bessie is concerned that the forthright way in which she has lived her life may keep her out of heaven.
Recently the New York City Board of Education wanted to cut off Sadie's pension. They demanded that she prove that she was still alive. "That is the type of thing you have to deal with when you get to be our age," says Sadie. "They think we're sitting around in rocking chairs, which isn't at all true. Why, we don't even own a rocking chair."
"When people ask me how we've lived past one hundred," says Bessie, "I say, 'Honey, we never married. We never had husbands to worry us to death!'" The sisters consider it justice that they have outlived "those old rebby boys," the white Southern men who harassed and discriminated against them during their many years in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Sadie reflects, "Bessie always said she planned to be as old as Moses. And when Bessie says she's going to do something, she does it. Now, I think Moses lived to 120. So I told Bessie that if she lives to 120, then I'll just have to live to 122 so I can take care of her."
Bessie says she knows that Sadie will get into heaven because of her compassionate and gentle ways. She adds, "I just might get into Heaven. I may have to hang on to Sadie's heels, but I'll get there."
I have no doubt they will both get there. Meanwhile, we can be grateful for living history in our midst.