Bessie Delany, who with her sister found fame after the age of 100 as co-author of a best-selling memoir on growing up black before the civil rights era and succeeding despite racism, died in her sleep at her home in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
Delany, 104, died Monday, said Amy Hill Hearth, who helped her and her surviving sister, 106-year-old Sarah, write "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years."
The reminiscences, by turns poignant and playful, have become a high school and college text as well as a play, "Having Our Say," which is on Broadway.
Hearth said Sarah Delany handled her sister's death with characteristic strength. "I'll do the best I can," she told Hearth. "I'll continue right on as if Bessie were here."
Her sister, she said, "lived her life the way she wanted to. 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. And she said you really couldn't ask for anything more."
A. Elizabeth Delany was one of 10 children who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., where her father, freed from slavery at age 7, became a school vice principal and the nation's first elected black Episcopal bishop.
All of the Delany children worked their way through college. In their 20s, Bessie and Sarah moved to New York City, where they attended Columbia University. Bessie became a dentist and opened a clinic in Harlem. Sarah became the first black domestic science teacher in the city's public schools.
Despite such a life of relative privilege, she did not escape the terrors of the segregated South. She was nearly lynched once for talking back to a white man.
"It was a hard life, but it was a sweet life," she said in a 1993 interview. "I wouldn't change it with anybody."
She and her co-author lived their entire lives together, the last 38 years in the New York City suburb of Mt. Vernon.
In addition to her sister, Delany is survived by 14 nieces and nephews.