“It took me a hundred years to figure out I can’t change the world. I can only change Bessie.”
Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891–1995)
Dentist and Author
A mainstay in the Harlem community for much of the twentieth century, “Bessie” Delany came to broader public attention only after the age of 100, when she and her sister, Sarah “Sadie” Delany (1889–1999), a retired teacher, were approached by New York Times reporter Amy Hill Hearth. Following the publication of a newspaper story by Hearth, the threesome collaborated on Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, a bestseller acclaimed as a portrait of a century of African-American life and a self-portrait of pioneering black professional women. It was adapted for Broadway in 1995. The sisters, two of 10 children born to a former slave who became the first African-American Episcopal bishop, witnessed the growth of New York’s African-American community from the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance through the civil rights era and into the modern age.
Bessie and Sadie Delany came to New York during the First World War from Jim Crow-era North Carolina, where they were educated at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. Bessie became one of only 11 women, and the only African-American woman, out of 170 students in the 1919 entering class of the Columbia School of Dental and Oral Surgery. She earned her DDS degree in 1923 and was soon the second black woman dentist licensed in the State of New York. During Harlem’s heyday, Bessie looked after the teeth of such luminaries as nightclub owner Ed Small, civil rights leader Louis T. Wright, and author James Weldon Johnson. Widely known throughout the community as “Dr. Bessie,” she treated the rich and poor equally and performed thousands of free children’s dental exams. In 1994, Columbia’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery awarded her its Distinguished Alumna Award for “her pioneering work as a minority woman in dentistry.”