A daughter’s story

Daily Reading for April 14 • Edward Thomas Demby, 1957, and Henry Beard Delany, 1928, Bishops

After Jim Crow, there were separate cars for colored people and white people. And there were Pullmans, which colored people could ride if they had enough money, but most of us didn’t. Anyway, the Pullman was for interstate travel only, and most Negroes were taking local trains. When Papa [Henry Beard Delany] became a bishop, he occasionally was encouraged by a friendly conductor to take the Pullman instead of the Jim Crow car. But Papa would say no. He would be amiable about it, though. He would say to the conductor, “That’s OK. I want to ride with my people, see how they’re doing.” And he’d go sit in the Jim Crow car. . . . Jim Crow’s not law anymore, but it’s still in some people’s hearts. I don’t let it get to me, though. I just laugh it off, child. I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do in this life. . . .

When Papa became bishop in 1918, people were mighty impressed. His accomplishment was so extraordinary, I still wonder how he did it. He put up with a lot to get where he got. One time, not long after Papa was consecrated to the bishopric, he did a service at Christ Church in Raleigh. It was a white, segregated church. Our family attended, and do you know what happened? We had to sit in the balcony, which was built for slaves! And we were not given the privilege of Communion. Ooooh, that makes Bessie mad. At the time, she wanted to make a fuss, but she did not, because she did not want to embarrass Papa.

Somehow, Papa always endured this kind of degradation. He saw the hypocrisy, but he felt that gently, slowly, he was making true progress for himself and his people, and he was at peace with that. I learned a lot from my Papa about coping with institutional racism. The way to succeed was simple: You had to be better at what you did than any of your white competition. That was the main thing. But you couldn’t be too smug about it, or white folks would feel threatened. . . . My way to get ahead was to be better than my white competition. Papa had set a good example for me of how to work within the system.

From Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth (New York: Dell Publishing, 1993).

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