I got my first teaching job in New York in the fall of 1920. I think I was paid fifteen hundred dollars for the year. It was at RS. 119 in Harlem, which was an elementary school, mostly colored. This was a typical assignment for a colored teacher. They most certainly did not want us in schools where the children were white. The parents would object. One way that the principals kept us out was to say they could not hire anyone with a Southern accent because it would be damaging to the children. Well, most of us colored teachers at the time had Southern accents. So it was just a way of keeping us out.
When my accent was considered a problem, I found a way around that. I signed up with a speech coach, a woman in Manhattan. She was a white woman, a lovely woman. I don’t think she had too many colored clients. I remember that when I would go to her apartment for the lessons, the doorman made me take the freight elevator. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted those speech lessons.
You had to decide: Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit just by changing me? If I can get ahead, doesn’t that help my people?
I was very ambitious. Much of the time that I taught at P.S. 119 I made money on the side by baking cakes and selling them for a nickel a slice to the teachers at school. Another thing I would do is make lollipops at home and sell them in the school cafeteria for a penny each. Sometimes I’d make lemon; other times I’d make cinnamon or something else. You might think that making lollipops and cakes is an awful slow way to get money, but I liked doing it. Besides, you’d be surprised at how it adds up—a penny here, a nickel there —after a few years. I never let a nickel get by me, that’s what Bessie always says.
Miss Larson, the principal at P.S. 119, got this idea that her boyfriend could peddle my candy. He had trouble holding on to a job, and she was looking for something or him to do. So I rented a loft at 121st Street, in the business district. We called the candy Delany’s Delights and had tins made up with that name. The candy was handdipped chocolate fondant, and we had three sizes: a halfpound, a pound, and two pounds. We charged two dollars per pound, and we just sold that stuff all over New York. Even at Abraham & Straus, the department store! I made it, and he sold it.
Eventually I gave up the candy business. The Depression came along, and people had no money for chocolate fondant, that’s for sure. Also, I had begun teaching at a high school and had a more demanding schedule.
I had wanted to teach at a high school because it was considered a promotion, and it paid better. But I had to be a little clever to find ways to get around these brick walls they set up for colored folks.
This is what I did when they told me I had to come in for an appointment. I skipped it and sent them a letter, acting like there was a mix-up. Then I just showed up on the first day of classes.
Child, when I showed up that day—at Theodore Roosevelt High School, a white high school—they just about died when they saw me. But my name was on the list to teach there, and it was too late to send me someplace else. So I became the first colored teacher in the New York City system to teach domestic science on the high school level.
My classes were very demanding because as a colored teacher I always got the meanest kids. Except once. That was the year they had me mixed up with a white woman whose name was also Delany. It was kind of funny. She was just furious because she got all these tough girls, and I got the easy ones—college-bound and motivated. Tell you the truth, I did not mind the tough kids. I loved them all.
After World War II we started having trouble keeping Mama in line. The little cottage we were living in was equipped only with propane gas, and we were afraid Mama would burn herself up. Mama also kept losing her pension check. She started hiding it, and then she couldn’t find it. It was getting so we couldn’t count on Mama’s judgment any more. Finally we decided that one of us was going to have to quit working and take care of Mama.