Historic, but not famous

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, dentist, civil rights pioneer

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891 – 1995) was a dentist and civil rights pioneer. She earned her dental degree (DDS) from Columbia University in 1923, only the second African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State.  She was one of 10 children raised by a former slave who became a bishop in his church and a teacher in North Carolina.

She attended St. Augustine’s in North Carolina and after graduation, came to NYC and enrolled in Columbia University, where she was the only African American woman in a class of 170.  She shared a dental office with her brother, Dr. H. B. Delany Jr. after her graduation. They eventually moved the office to Harlem.

Throughout her life, Bessie, participated in many protests and marches, and encouraged civil rights organizers to meet at her and her brother’s office. She passed away at 104 at her home in Mt. Vernon, New York.

Ms. Delany and her elder sister Sarah “Sadie” Delany,  were the subjects of The New York Times bestselling oral history, Having Our Say, written by journalist Amy Hill Hearth in 1991. The book was on The New York Times bestseller lists for 105 weeks. It spawned a Broadway play in 1995 and a television film in 1999.

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Historic, but not famous

Charles Austin Beard, Historian
Beard in 1917

Charles Austin Beard (1874 – 1948) was born in Indiana, expelled from Quaker school, finally graduated from High School and eventually ran the area newspaper with his brothers. He attended DePauw University, running the newspaper there and graduating in 1898. He continued his studies at Oxford in 1899 and returned to the US with his wife in 1902 where he studied at Columbia University. He received his doctorate in history in 1904 and immediately joined the faculty as a lecturer.  In order to provide his students with reading materials that were hard to acquire, he compiled a large collection of essays and excerpts in a single volume: An Introduction to the English Historians (1906). This became a standard in education.

He moved through the ranks at Columbia, teaching in Public Law and Barnard College. He continued to write for journals, textbooks and political magazines. He  also coached the debate team and wrote about public affairs, especially municipal reform. He left Columbia University during the first World War as he disagreed with how the University was being managed, but still wanted to be involved in education.

He was not the last to leave the University in a dispute about academic freedom and management of faculty. His friend James Harvey Robinson also resigned from Columbia in May 1919 to become one of the founders of the New School for Social Research and serve as its first director. The Beards were active in helping Robinson found the New School for Social Research  where the faculty would control its own membership. Charles never taught there and did not seek a permanent position ever again. He lived off the royalties from the many textbooks and articles he continued to write.

Beard’s political views often went against the mainstream, but added perspective to interventionist and isolationist philosophies. By the 1950s his economic interpretation of history had fallen out of favor; only a few prominent historians held to his view of class conflict as a primary driver in American history.

Beard died in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 1, 1948 on the farm he shared with his wife.

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Historic, but not famous

Nathaniel Britton, botanist

Nathaniel Lord Britton (January 15, 1859 – June 25, 1934) was an American botanist and taxonomist who co-founded the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York. He was born on Staten Island in New York City and bound for religious studies, but took to the study of nature early in life and made that his calling.

Mr. Britton graduated from Columbia University and taught geology there. He joined the Botanical society there and met his wife,  Elizabeth Gertrude Knight, a bryologist (study of non-vascular plants), in 1885. They were lifelong collaborators in botanical research. She is the one that proposed a Botanical Garden in The Bronx after visiting one in Queens.

Britton left Columbia in 1895 to become the first director of the New York Botanical Garden, a position he held until 1929. He was on the first Board of Managers for the institution, along with Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

Much of his field work was done in the Caribbean, where he visited frequently when the winter weather in New York City became too severe. His contributions to the study of Caribbean flora are undisputed. He co-wrote Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada, and the British Possessions (1896) and The Cactaceae. 

He died after suffering a stroke at his home in the Bronx at the age of 75.

The writings of Dr. Britton are located at the NY Botanical Gardens and consist of correspondence, research and personal papers, manuscripts and typescripts, lecture notes, photography, certificates, and a suede-bound presentation volume. It covers his botanical career including graduate studies at Columbia College (1875-79), association with the Torrey Botanical Club, the founding and directorship of the New York Botanical Garden (1891-1929), and post-retirement years to his death in 1934. Information about Dr. Britton’s publications, notably the Britton & Brown Illustrated Flora, and on botanical expeditions to Caribbean, including those relating to the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are well-documented in the correspondence and written materials. His field records are located in the NYBG Collectors’ Field Notebook collection.

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