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."