Sadie Peterson Delaney

This is an extract from an article published in the Northern/Southern Dutchess News on February 12, 2020, under the heading, African American Women's Voices & Talents of a Century Ago by Bill Jeffway.

Sadie (Johnson) Peterson Delaney (1889 to 1958) was both ambitious and successful in expanding a field of health and healing driven by books, called Bibliotherapy.

We know from The Quill, the Parish newsletter of the the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church, that she was a prolific poet, and involved in many Church groups. From the October 21, 1915 issue:

Mrs Peterson is one of Zion’s staunch supporters. She possesses considerable literary ability, is a willing worker, a splendid young woman and of a congenial personality. She is a born poet. Her productions are practically all spontaneous efforts and yet she has but few equals in the amateur poetic world. Each of her poems grip with a peculiar fascination, being clothed in beautiful language, the pathos so tender and the whole so original, varied and novel that one is carried along as in a delightful dream of admiration. Mrs. Peterson is serving our church as President of the J. W. Hood Literary Society, President of the General Claims Auxiliary No. 2, Leader of the Children's Class, Sabbath School Teacher, and member of the Busy Bee Sewing Circle. She is one of the daughters of Zion of whom we are proud.

New York State was having a referendum in the year 1915 on the question of women’s suffrage, of course only among male voters who were the only ones who could vote at the time. The question the ballot was whether the NY State constitution should be amended to allow women to vote.

In an effort to drum up support among African-Americans the Equal Suffrage League of Poughkeepsie, led by Laura Wiley of Vassar College, held a meeting at the Smith AME Zion Church, the African-American Church on Smith Street in Poughkeepsie in 1914, a year before the referendum. Among the women of that Church who stepped up and spoke in support of women’s suffrage was Sadie Johnson Peterson. Interested in writing at the time, she read an original poem called, “A Suffrage Call.” Unfortunately we do not know exactly what she said. Peterson had moved to Poughkeepsie as a child in 1899 when her father took the job of Sexton at St Paul’s Episcopal Church.

She attended Poughkeepsie High School, and Miss McGovern’s School of Social Work, abley pivoting out of a difficult first marriage to focus on studying to become a librarian. She was 30 years old when she left Poughkeepsie to study at the 135th Street Branch of the New York City library system, now New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. She was active there when the intellectual, musical and artistic activities of the Harlem Renaissance took place. Today, that library branch houses a collection of her letters, clippings and photographs.

Sadie Peterson, 1915, Poughkeepsie.

Profile and poem, 1915, The Quill.

Above: Sadie P. Johnson is shown receiving an honorary Doctorate from Atlanta University.

Above: Eleanor Roosevelt and others profile Sadie P. Delaney.

In 1924, the remarried Sadie Peterson Delaney took a position as librarian at Tuskegee Veterans Administration hospital. There she developed and evolved the practice of Bibliotherapy, working with doctors to use books to heal both mental and physical wounds. Imagine, a time before television, before the pervasive TV screen appeared in our hospital rooms to distract us, Bibliotherapy was a deeply thoughtful concept that looked at a very holistic approach to healing. Eleanor Roosevelt in her column “My Day” wrote in January 1957 applauding Mrs. Delaney and her practice of bibliotherapy. Roosevelt explained that Mrs. Delaney served 1,000 patients. She had added a library binding service to give patients vocational experience. She started a department for the blind, and classes in braille.

In the building that was the Poughkeepsie High School at the time, now the Family Partnership building on North Hamilton Street, there is a room where she may have attended classes, today you can find the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library. Less active now that in prior years, the space, books, and resources of the library stand ready to be invigorated by individuals with the vision, intellect and determination of Poughkeepsie’s extraordinary librarian, Sadie Peterson Delaney.

The Sadie P. Delaney Papers at New York Public Library are the single biggest source of material related to her. An except of their profile of her is below, full statement at link provided.

Mrs. Delaney was a pioneer in the field of bibliotherapy and organized the Veterans Administration Hospital Library in Tuskegee, Alabama. Before assuming the post of Chief Librarian at the Veterans Hospital in 1923, Mrs. Delaney began her career in librarianship at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library in 1920. There she found that immigrants and troubled children could be helped through bibliotherapy (the therapeutic use of reading materials). Her initial work in bibliotherapy received international attention. Mrs. Delaney also had a special interest in books dealing with black history and literature and wanted to develop a collection with such a focus. She thus came to know Arthur A. Schomburg, the bibliophile and collector. Mrs. Delaney was cited for exceptional work at the 135th Street Branch Library and founded the first black professional women's club in New York City. In 1928 she married Rudicel A. Delaney.

Photo courtesy Tuskegee University Archives.

Above: The 1914 Poughkeepsie Eagle News reported that Miss Sadie Peterson read an original poem on the importance of women's suffrage.