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Annie Elizabeth Delany

"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 best-seller 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."

Source: Columbia University


Quotations from Annie Elizabeth Delany

1. "I am a colored woman or a Negro woman. Either one is OK. People dislike those words now. Today these use this term African American. It wouldn't occur to me to use that. I prefer to think of myself as an American, that's all!"

2. "I am the kind of Negro that most white people don't know about. They either don't know, or maybe they don't want to know, I'm not sure which I mean, just listen to that fella, David Duke, down in Louisiana—the fella that was with the Klan and then he was going to run for president. David Duke doesn't think there are Negroes like me and Sadie, colored folks who have never done nothin' except contribute to America. Well, I'm just as good an American as he is—better! ...I think I'm going to write a letter, and I'm going to say, "Dear Mr. Duke: This is just to set the record straight. I am a Negro woman. I was brought up in a good family. My Papa was a devoted father. I went to college; I paid my own way. I am not stupid. I'm not on welfare. And I'm not scrubbing floors. Especially not yours."

3. [My mother told me:] "You must decide whether you want to get married someday, or have a career."... I set my sights on the career. I thought, what does any man really have to offer me?"

4. "You are not a doctor of dentistry! You are a doctor of segregation!"

5. "I thought I could change the world. 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."

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