Children’s Book Highlights Lives of Delany Sisters

Dec 19, 2002 12:55 PM EST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - This January, United Methodist Abingdon Press will publish The Delany Sisters Reach High, a children's book based on two African-American sisters who lived to be more than 100 years old.

Amy Hill Hearth, a former New York Times reporter, first told the story of Sarah Louise (Sadie) and Annie Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany in the bestseller Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.

Hearth introduces children to these unforgettable women in her new book based on the Delanys' childhood in the early days of the Jim Crow South.

Fred A. Allen, an executive with the United Methodist Publishing House, said the book provides a sound theological resource for children and those who work with children. Abingdon Press is a Publishing House imprint.

"The Delany Sisters Reach High supports our strategic initiative to develop and provide an ever-stronger set of products and services for the African-American community," he said.

Sadie, born in 1889, and Bessie, born in 1891, grew up with their eight siblings on the campus of St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C. Their father, a former slave, was a minister and vice president of the college. He was the first elected African- American bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Hearth recounts stories of the children lining up for "Papa's" inspection every morning after breakfast; sharing their desks and textbooks with former slaves who had not learned to read and write; playing with Bessie's pet pig, Retta; and spending evenings with the whole family playing music together on violins, clarinets, trombones and an organ.

The sisters also encountered the ugly realities of racism, segregation and Jim Crow-having to sit at the back of the trolley on their way to a picnic, and finding newly designated "white" and "colored" water dippers at the park. Bessie, indignant at the injustice, drank from the white side.

The Rev. and Mrs. Delany were both college graduates who encouraged their children to "reach high." Bessie became the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York state. Sadie was the first black person to teach domestic science on the high school level in New York City public schools.

Hearth discovered the sisters living quietly in retirement in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and went on to write their oral history, Having Our Say. She conceived the idea of a children's book several years before they died, and was spurred on by countless requests from grade school teachers and parents of young children.

"There's a great need for historically significant, non-fiction books for children. Teachers and parents are clamoring for them," Hearth says.

"I don't envision this as a book only for African-American children," she says, "but for all children. As the sisters were fond of saying, their story is not black history or women's history. It's part of American history."

The Delany Sisters Reach High is for children ages 6-12. The illustrations are by award-winning artist Tim Ladwig. Cost is $17. For more information, go to online.