- Having His Say:Memories from Lemuel Delany Jr.
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Lemuel Delany is a retired funeral home director living with his wife and daughter in Raleigh, North Carolina. He comes from a distinguished family that includes his grandfather, the first black Episcopal bishop in North Carolina, and two aunts who inspired a book, play, and movie called Having Our Say. In this interview, Delany explains how his aunts' influential 1993 book overlooks the most important part of his family's history. He also provides a snapshot of life in the black neighborhoods of Raleigh and Harlem during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and reveals a proud family legacy and his willingness to challenge others, including major leaders, to live up to their ideals.
Kimberly Hill interviewed Lemuel Delany Jr. on July 15, 2005, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he continues to reside. The full transcript and tape recording are housed in the Southern Oral History Program Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
In Lemuel Delany's words
Growing up. I grew up in the segregated South. Born July the 17th, 1920. That's two days from now. I had a very interesting child life having been born the middle child of Lemuel Delany and Julia Brown Delany in the city of Raleigh, which was divided between white Raleigh and black Raleigh. I lived in black Raleigh. I had very little contact with white Raleigh because white Raleigh didn't want me to have contact with them.
The border was—let me think—east and west. East and west primarily. When I crossed over into the west side of Raleigh, none of my natural wants and desires took place. In other words, I didn't get hungry; I didn't get thirsty; I didn't have to go to the bathroom. Only when I crossed back over into the east side of Raleigh and then all these things came to pass. But as long as I was on the west side, they did not happen. [Y]ou couldn't do anything. I guess nature took over and said just don't get thirsty, just don't get hungry, don't have to go to the bathroom. Don't do any of those things.
My father was a medical doctor. My mother was a speech teacher at Saint Augustine College, and he was a surgeon at Saint Agnes Hospital. Both segregated from the top to the bottom. In fact I had a white doctor to tell me one time, "If there was any such thing as a black man being a gentleman, your father would be it."
My grandfather on my father's side was the first elected bishop of the diocese of North Carolina for the Episcopal Church in North Carolina. I only knew him as Grandpa. He died when I was nine years old. My grandmother moved to New York with her children, and I only saw her when I went to and from New York. Of course she lived until I was a grown man. So I did get to know her very well. [End Page 61] On my mother's side her father was just as big in the Baptist church as my daddy's was in the Episcopal church, and he lived in Hertford County, North Carolina.
I don't think we called it segregation. I don't know what we called it because I lived in a black world. I had no dealings with the white world. Even though every day I passed the white high school going to the...