The Delany Sisters' Story

Producing Having Our Say, the story of the Delany sisters, for stage and television has been a labor of love and learning for Camille Cosby. And in the process, she has discovered much of her story in theirs. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Randall Pinkston talks to Camille Cosby about it..

Having Our Say is a true story, a rich and vivid tale of the Delany sisters, two extraordinary women who lived past 100 and who brought to times both good and bad a special dignity and grace.

Camille Cosby was inspired by their story and helped bring it first to the stage, and now to television. The projects have been a joyful journey for Cosby, who was handpicked by the sisters to transform their book into drama. It was a tough audition.

The women who worked with Cosby, like the Delany sisters, are also trailblazers. Emily Mann directed the play, and Judith James is co-producing the movie. Ruby Dee plays Bessie Delany and Diahann Carroll plays Sadie Delany.

Randall Pinkston: "What is your hope for this movie?"

Camille Cosby: "My hope is that people will learn something. It will wake up their consciousness. It will make them think about things that they had not thought about before. It will enable people to understand each other's similarities and differences, and to value people's differences."

The Delany sisters' story turns out to be, in large part, the story of America in the 20th century.

Says Cosby, "It is a journey through history. It gives us an opportunity to learn about the events in American history that are true. It is an opportunity to listen to history from the other people's perspectives."

When Charles Kuralt interviewed the Delanys in 1993, they remembered when Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation first went in to effect. They were then little girls.

Both Sarah "Sadie" Delany and Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany earned advanced degrees from Columbia University. Both were independent self-supporting women throughout their lives. Sadie became New York's first black domestic science teacher, while Bessie was the second African-American woman to practice dentistry.

Cosby says, "Having Our Say is an opportunity to correct so much misinformation floating around about African-Americans. And about (America), because once you correct misinformation about African-Americans, you're also correcting the misinformation about America as we know it."

Bessie Delany was 104 when she died in 1991. Sadie Delany died in January at 109, just as filming was beginning in North Carolina. Without changing the story, her death gave the project a deeper sense of purpose.

Co-producer Judith James believes this story is for all Americans.

Randall Pinkston: "You work in Hollywood, so you know that youth is all in TV and in the movies."

Judith James: "It is if you let it be."

Pinkston: "But then you get into the question whic is, how do you sell the story of two centenarians to an audience in 1999 which believes or has been told that youth is the thing?"

Judith James: "First of all, you look to the honesty of these women. The fact of the matter is that we all secretly know that youth is not everything. And these women come along and say, 'you know, you're right. We're funny and we're charming and we're smart. And we say things, in new ways and surprising ways, And, honey, we're over 101 We can say what we want'!"

For Cosby, "The most profound message, I think, about these sisters' story is their human spirit was able to prevail, despite all the obstacles." She adds, "After looking at this story, or even reading their book, or even seeing this play, one will think that one can do something about one's condition, about one's predicament or one's life, that you can move on to the next step."

An educator, activist and philanthropist, Camille Cosby has had her own private struggles. Like the Delanys, she faced them head-on. The worst was the tragic death of her son, Ennis. Now, she and her husband, Bill Cosby are carrying out Ennis' desire to help people with dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs reading skills. He was 19 before he was diagnosed.

"I will never forget his excitement," says Cosby. "He was so happy to know he was dyslexic, because it was an answer. He understood why he was struggling with words, why he was writing in a particular way, why he wasn't, why he was having auditory comprehension problems."

Four of the Cosby's five children were born with dyslexia. The Cosbys established a foundation in Ennis' name, Camille Cosby explains, "because he wanted to spend time with others who were like him, other dyslexic students, and show them how they could do it, and use himself as an example of a success story, that you can, you can learn, no matter what your learning problem is."

Personal setbacks did not defeat the Delany sisters, a message not lost on Camille Cosby. She says, "I think all of us have a responsibility to say something and then to do something. Not only to say it, but to act on it. That's a responsibility all of us have."

The Delany sisters took responsibility. They spoke the truth, and in it found hope. Because they did, their story has no ending. A part of them is with us forever.

That's the spirit of the Delany sisters. From the Delanys, Cosby says that she learned the value of tenacity, the power of community, and the healing nature of love.

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