North v. South
Two classy young women move from their sheltered life in North Carolina to the hustle and bustle of New York City—sounds like the plot of a classic fish-out-of-water sitcom. As you might imagine, the dissonance between these two settings help shape Sadie and Bessie into the maiden ladies we come to love.
That's not to say that the sisters had your average Southern upbringing. They grew up on the campus of St. Aug's College, which makes "reading and writing and thinking [...] as natural [...] as sleeping and eating" (2.7.7). This was a sheltered life in many respects, especially given their parents' strictness. Similarly, the girls remained isolated from the most malicious forms of racism in liberal Raleigh—at least until the passing of the Jim Crow law.
Jim Crow, in case you don't know, was a series of racial segregation laws first enacted in the late 1800s. Although there were plenty of racially discriminatory laws before this time, Jim Crow enforced new, radical forms of institutionalized racism, banning black Americans from using the same restaurants, schools, public spaces, and even water fountains as white Americans. These laws—which are "mighty puzzling" to the sisters—open Sadie and Bessie up to the reality of racism in America (4.11.7)
The other thing that bursts their protective bubble is their time teaching throughout the South. Although the girls aren't rich by any means, they never realize how well-off they are until seeing conditions throughout the South. Poverty is rampant, diseases are common, and their community remains woefully uneducated. Now, more than ever, the kids understand why their dad says that they "owe it to [their] nation, [their] race, and [themselves] to go" to college (4.13.4)
The sisters' quest to better themselves leads them to Harlem, NYC, which was in the midst of a cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. This scene was led by writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, political activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and musicians like Billie Holiday. These artistic heavy-hitters strive to create a new cultural identity for black Americans and end up influencing countless artists that follow, from rappers and jazz musicians to poets and filmmakers.
Although the sisters decide to move to Harlem to attend college, there's little doubt that the sheer energy of the place is what makes them fall in love with the neighborhood. Sure, they might have to adjust their small-town ways a bit, but they quickly settle in and make themselves at home.
The sisters experience some tumultuous historical events while living in NYC, like the Great Depression, World War II, and Civil Rights Movement. They see their community through the best of times and the worst of times, always applying that Delany know-how to helping those less-well-off. Although their lives eventually take them to Mount Vernon, a quaint suburb with a gorgeous "view of the New York City skyline," they never forget what it feels like to take a night out on the town in Harlem or watch all its interesting characters go about their business (7.32.7).