Black History Month: Profiles in Service

Two Columbians--one faculty member and one graduate--have served their communities in unique ways but decades apart.

Bessie Delany, 1923 Dental Graduate

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany graduated from Columbia’s dental school—then called the School of Dental and Oral Surgery—in 1923. She was well-known throughout her life (1891-1995) for her work in the Harlem community and as the subject of a book, a Broadway show, and a TV movie, “Having Our Say,” which also featured her sister, Sarah “Sadie” Delany (1889-1999).

Dr. Delany was the second African-American dentist to be licensed in New York state. During her career, she looked after the teeth of such Harlem luminaries as nightclub owner Ed Small, civil rights leader Louis T. Wright, and author James Weldon Johnson. Widely known throughout the community as “Dr. Bessie,” she treated the rich and poor equally and performed thousands of free children’s dental exams. In 1994, Columbia’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery awarded her its Distinguished Alumna Award for “her pioneering work as a minority woman in dentistry.”

The sisters came to the public’s attention after they both turned 100 and a New York Times reporter wrote about them. The sisters and the reporter collaborated on a book, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” which became a best seller. It was adapted for Broadway and TV.

Olajide Williams, Stroke Educator

Olajide Williams, MD, obtained his medical degree from the University of Lagos, Nigeria, then trained in neurology and completed a neuromuscular fellowship program at Columbia University Medical Center, where he also received a master’s degree from the Mailman School of Public Health. He is now associate professor of neurology, director of Acute Stroke Services at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and chief of staff/chief medical officer of the Department of Neurology.

Dr. Williams has contributed to the community as an international leader in stroke education and community-based behavioral intervention research. He co-leads the Center for Stroke Disparities Solutions, funded by the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke, with physicians at New York University. Started in 2013, the center creates and tests programs aimed at lowering stroke risk among racial and ethnic minorities. As part of his work with the center, Dr. Williams uses short culturally tailored professionally produced films of stroke patient stories to improve stroke knowledge and prevention in adults. “Stroke is a mysterious disease for many people,” Dr. Williams says. “It’s a huge challenge requiring very innovative, creative solutions.”

As founder of Hip Hop Public Health, Dr. Williams creates and implements multimedia public health interventions that target youth around the topics of childhood obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. He developed “Hip Hop Stroke,” an innovative multimedia school-based stroke education program intended to educate children to transfer stroke knowledge to their parents and grandparents.

Read more about men and women at CUMC who have contributed to black history.