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BESSIE DELANY: 1891-1995 // Black trailblazer, author dies at 104

Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany, the younger of the two sisters whose wisdom and triumphs have been celebrated in a best-selling book and in the Broadway play Having Our Say, died Monday at her home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She was 104.

"She just took a couple of deep breaths and passed away," said Amy Hill Hearth, co-author of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, the 1993 best-selling oral history. "And it's an important thing she died at home, in her bed, with her sister there. That's all she wanted."

Her 106-year-old sister, Sarah, known as Sadie, with whom she had lived for more than 100 years, handled her sister's death with the same strength that carried her through more than a century.

"I'll just do the best I can," Sarah Delany told Hearth in an interview at her home. "I'll continue right on as if Bessie were here."

She added that for her sister, whose life was filled with many achievements, the last few years had been particularly special.

"Bessie lived to be 104, and she lived her life the way she wanted to," she said. "And especially the last couple of years, she has been having a ball. Between the play and books, she has been having the time of her life."

Born a generation after the Civil War, the sisters had triumphed over Jim Crow, worked in Harlem during its renaissance, borne witness to the feminist and civil rights movements, and in recent years, become national celebrities.

Their award-winning memoir has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 19 months, sold more than 900,000 copies and been translated into four foreign languages. They were co-authors of a second book, The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom (Kodansha America, 1994), which has sold 160,000 copies. In April their parlor was re-created on Broadway, in a dramatization that earned three Tony nominations.

But their lives remained simple. They rose early to eat a breakfast of oatmeal, went to bed after watching the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on a black-and-white television and had no telephone. They relied mostly on each other for comfort and company.

Annie Elizabeth Delany was born on Sept. 3, 1891, in Raleigh, N.C., the third of 10 children of a former slave who became this country's first black Episcopal bishop. Raised on the campus of St. Augustine's College, she and her siblings were well educated, nurtured and sheltered from the harsher edges of American racism.

But she and her sister often spoke of the first time they were told to go to the back of the trolley car. Known as the feistier of the sisters, Bessie was once almost lynched for speaking rudely to a "rebby boy." And she often told of how she would sneak a sip from the forbidden side of the water fountain. "I'd just take a drink of the white water," she said. "It didn't taste any different."

She graduated from St. Augustine's in 1911 and worked as a teacher in North Carolina and Georgia to earn the money she needed to continue her education. The few months in 1912 that she and Sadie taught in different parts of the South was the only time they did not live together.

In 1917, the sisters made their way to New York City. Bessie went to dental school at Columbia University, graduated in 1923 and became the second black woman dentist in New York.

Known as "Dr. Bessie, Harlem's colored woman dentist," Dr. Delany treated many of Harlem's poor, and in 27 years of practice never raised her rates. It was $2 for a cleaning and $5 for a silver filling, from 1923 until the day she retired, in 1950.

Like Sarah, the first black home economics teacher in a New York City high school, she never married or had children. They lived together in a Harlem apartment, in a Bronx cottage and finally in the Mount Vernon home they bought in 1957.

She is survived by her sister and 14 nieces and nephews.