Martin Robison Delany (May 6, 1812 – January 24, 1885) was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer, arguably the first proponent of American black nationalism. He was one of the first three blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School. He became the first African-American field officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Trained as an assistant and a physician, he treated patients during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, when many doctors and residents fled the city.
Early life and education
Delany was born free in Charles Town, West Virginia (then part of Virginia, a slave state) to Pati and Samuel Delany. Although his father Samuel was enslaved, his mother was a free woman whose parents were from Angola. His paternal grandparents were also African, ofGola ethnicity (from modern-day Liberia), taken captive during warfare and brought as slaves to the Virginia colony. The grandfather was a chieftain.
Pati’s parents were born in the Niger Valley, west Africa, and were of Mandika ethnicity. Her father was said to have been a prince. He was named Shango, captured with his betrothed Graci and brought to America as slaves. After some time, they were given their freedom in Virginia, perhaps based on their noble birth, and Shango returned to Africa. Graci stayed in America with their only daughter Pati. When Delany was just a few years old, attempts were made to enslave him and a sibling. Their mother Pati carried her two youngest children 20 miles to the courthouse in Winchester to argue successfully for her family’s freedom based on her own free birth.
As he was growing up, Delany and his siblings learned to read and write using The New York Primer and Spelling Book, given to them by a peddler. Virginia prohibited education of black people. When the book was discovered in September 1822, Pati took her children out of Virginia toChambersburg in the free state of Pennsylvania to ensure their continued freedom. They had to leave their father Samuel, but a year later he bought his freedom and rejoined the family in Chambersburg.
In Chambersburg, the young Delany continued learning. Occasionally he left school to work when his family could not afford for his education to continue. In 1831, at the age of 19, he journeyed west to the growing city of Pittsburgh, where he became a barber and laborer. Having heard stories about his parents’ ancestors, he wanted to visit Africa, which he considered his spiritual home.
Marriage and family
While living in Pittsburgh, in 1843 Delany met and married Catherine A. Richards. She was the daughter of a successful food provisioner, said to be one of the wealthiest families in the city. The couple had eleven children, seven of whom survived into
Delany became a student of Rev. Lewis Woodson of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wylie Street. Shortly after, he began attending Jefferson College, where he was taught classics, Latin and Greek by Molliston M. Clark.
During the national cholera epidemic in 1833, Delany became apprenticed to Dr. Andrew N. McDowell, where he learned contemporary techniques of fire cupping and leeching, then considered the primary techniques to treat disease. He continued to study medicine under the mentorship of Dr. McDowell and other abolitionist doctors, such as Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne and Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam of Pittsburgh.
Delany became more active in political matters. In 1835 he attended his first National Convention of Men of Color, held in Philadelphia since 1831. He was inspired to conceive a plan to set up a ‘Black Israel’ on the east coast of Africa. He also became involved in the temperance movement and organizations caring for fugitive slaves who had escaped to Pennsylvania, a free state.
While in Pittsburgh, Delany began writing on public issues. In 1843 he began publishing The Mystery, a black-controlled newspaper. His articles and other writings were often reprinted in other venues, such as in abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison‘s The Liberator. A eulogy which Delany delivered for Rev. Fayette Davis in 1847 was widely redistributed. His activities brought controversy in 1846, when he was sued for libel by “Fiddler” Johnson, a black man he accused in The Mystery of being a slave catcher. Delany was convicted and fined $650 — a huge amount at the time. His white supporters in the newspaper business paid the fine for him.
While Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were in Pittsburgh in 1847 on an anti-slavery tour, they met with Delany. Together the men conceived the newspaper that became the North Star. It was first published later that year in Rochester, New York. The business was handled by Douglass, while Delany traveled to lecture, report, and obtain subscriptions. During these travels, he was frequently confronted by mobs opposing his views, sometimes violently.
In July 1848 Delany reported in the North Star that U.S District Court Justice John McLean had instructed the jury in the Crosswait trial to consider it a punishable offense for a citizen to thwart white persons’ trying to “repossess” an alleged runaway slave. His coverage influenced abolitionist Salmon P. Chase to lead a successful drive to remove McLean as a candidate of the Free Soil Party for the Presidency later that summer.
Medicine and nationalism
While living in Pittsburgh, Delany studied the basics of medicine under doctors and maintained his own cupping and leeching practice. In 1849 he began to study more seriously to prepare to apply to medical school. In 1850 he failed to be accepted to several institutions before being accepted to Harvard Medical School, after presenting letters of support from seventeen physicians. He was one of the first three black men to be admitted there.
The month after his arrival, however, a group of white students wrote to the faculty, complaining that “the admission of blacks to the medical lectures highly detrimental to the interests, and welfare of the Institution of which we are members.” They stated they had “no objection to the education and elevation of blacks but do decidedly demonstrate against their presence in college with us.” Within three weeks, Delany and his two fellow black students, Daniel Laing, Jr. and Isaac H. Snowden, were dismissed, despite dissenting opinion among students and staff at the medical school. Furious, Delany returned to Pittsburgh.
He became convinced that the white ruling class would not allow deserving persons of color to become leaders in society, and his opinions became more extreme. His book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852) argued that blacks had no future in the United States. He suggested they should leave and found a new nation elsewhere, perhaps in the West Indies or South America.
More moderate abolitionists were alienated by his position, and they resented his criticism of those who failed to hire colored men in their own businesses. Delany also criticized racialsegregation among Freemasons, a fraternal organization.
As a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1859 and 1862, Delany published parts of Blake: Or The Huts of America in serialized form. His novel portrayed an insurrectionist’s travels through slave communities. He believed that Stowe had portrayed slaves as too passive, although he praised her highlighting the cruelty of Southern slave owners. Modern scholars have praised Delany’s novel as an accurate interpretation of black culture. The first half of Part One was serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine, January to July 1859. The rest of Part One was included in serial form in the Weekly Anglo African Magazine from 1861-1862. This was the first novel by a black man to be published in the United States.
Delany worked for a brief period as principal of a colored school before going into practice as a physician. During another cholera outbreak in 1854, most doctors abandoned the city, as did many residents who could leave, as no one knew how the disease was caused nor how to control the epidemic. With a small group of nurses, Delany remained and cared for the victims.
In August 1854 Delany led the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Delany advanced his emigrationist argument in his manifesto “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent”. The convention approved a resolution stating, “[A]s men and equals, we demand every political right, privilege and position to which the whites are eligible in the United States, and we will either attain to these, or accept nothing.” There were a significant number of women attendees who also voted for the resolution, considered the foundation of black nationalism.
In May 1859 Delany sailed from New York for Liberia, to investigate the possibility of a new black nation in the region. He traveled in the region for nine months. He signed an agreement with eight chiefs in the Abeokuta region that would permit settlers to live on “unused land” in return for using their skills for the community’s good. It is a question whether Delany and the chiefs shared the same concepts of land use. The treaty was later dissolved due to warfare in the region, opposition by white missionaries, and the advent of the American Civil War.
In April 1860 Delany left Liberia for England, where he was honored by the International Statistical Congress. One American delegate walked out in protest. At the end of 1860, Delany returned to the United States. The next year, he began planning settlement of Abeokuta. He gathered a group of potential settlers and funding. When Delany decided to remain in the United States to work for emancipation of slaves, the pioneer plans fell apart.
Martin R. Delany, only black officer who received the rank of major during the Civil War.
In 1863 after Abraham Lincoln had called for a military draft, Delany began recruiting black men for the Union Army. His efforts in Rhode Island,Connecticut, and later Ohio raised thousands of enlistees, many of whom joined the newly formed United States Colored Troops. He wrote to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, requesting that he make efforts “to command all of the effective black men as Agents of the United States,” but the request was ignored.
In early 1865 Delany was granted an audience with Lincoln. He proposed a corps of black men led by black officers who could serve to win over Southern blacks. Although a similar appeal by Frederick Douglass had already been rejected, Lincoln was impressed by Delany and described him as “a most extraordinary and intelligent man.”
Delany was commissioned as a major a few weeks later, becoming the first black line field officer in the U.S. Army and achieving the highest rank an African American would reach during the Civil War. After the war, he remained with the Army and served under General Rufus Saxtonin the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops. He was later transferred to the Freedman’s Bureau, serving on Hilton Head. He shocked white officers with his strong call for the right of freed blacks to own land. Later in 1865, he was mustered out of the Freedman’s Bureau and shortly afterward resigned from the Army.
Following the war, Delany continued to be politically active. He worked to help black cotton farmers improve their business and negotiating skills to get a better price for their product. He also argued against blacks, when he saw fit, however. He opposed the vice presidential candidacy of J. J. Wright because he was too inexperienced, and also opposed the candidacy of a black man for the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina.
He unsuccessfully sought various positions, such as the appointment as Consul General in Liberia and lieutenant governor of South Carolina. He was appointed as a Trial Justice in Charleston. In 1875 charges of “defrauding a church” were brought against him. He was convicted, forced to resign, and served some time in jail. Although pardoned by the Republican governor, Delany was refused his old job.
Delany then supported the Democratic candidate Wade Hampton in the next election. Partly as a result of black swing votes encouraged by Delany, Hampton was elected. He reappointed Delany as Trial Justice. In 1874, Delany ran and lost an election for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina to Richard Howell Gleaves.
In the later 1870s, the gains of the Reconstruction period began to be pushed back by more conservative elements. White Democrats replaced Delany in office. Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts suppressed black voting in South Carolina, especially in the upland counties.
In reaction to whites’ regaining power and the suppression of black voting, Charleston-based blacks started planning again for emigration to Africa. In 1877, they formed ‘Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company’, with Delany as chairman of the finance committee. A year later, the company purchased a ship – the Azor – for the voyage. Delany worked as president of the board to organize the voyage.
In 1880, he withdrew from the project to serve his family. Two of his children were students at Wilberforce College and required money for tuition fees. His wife had been working as a seamstress to make ends meet. Delany began practicing medicine again in Charleston. On 24 January 1885, he died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Legacy and honors
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Martin R. Delany as among the 100 Greatest African Americans.
A Pennsylvania State Historic Marker at 5PPG Place, 3rd Ave. & Market St., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania commemorates his accomplishments and is near the spot where he published The Mystery.
Delany’s unfinished novel Blake: or, the Huts of America advocated black activism and rebellion. In it Delany reworked several of Stephen Foster‘s sentimental “plantation songs”. Thus he reappropriated material for his own purposes, to express black resistance and independence. Songs had been used in minstrel shows, in part to show slave contentment or lack of resistance to slavery. For example, Foster’s “Old Uncle Ned” mourned the passing of a slave:
- Den lay down de shubble and de hoe
- Hang up de fiddle and de bow:
- No more hard work for poor old Ned
- He’s gone whar de good darkeys go.
Delany turned this into a song of rebellion about the death of a master:
- Hang up the shovel and thee hoe-o-o-o!
- I don’t care whether I work or no!
- Old master’s gone to the slaveholders’ rest —
- He’s gone where they all ought to go!
While Part One was publlished in serial form, scholars do not know if he ever completed the novel or published the entire thing. Sections found were edited and published in the 20th century.
See the bibliography, “Martin Delany’s Writings”, West Virginia University Library, on line.
- The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, (1852); Black Classic Press, reprint (1993); Project Gutenberg, on line.
- “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent” (1854), in Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, and Phillip Lapsansky, Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest, Routledge (2000) ISBN 041592443X
- Blake, or the Huts of America, (1859-62); Boston: Beacon Press, reprint (1970) with Floyd Williams, ed., University of Virginia, on line
- “Stand still and see the salvation”, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture, University of Virginia, on line.
- Martin Robison Delany, Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861)
- University Pamphlets: A Series of Four Tracts on National Polity (1870)
- Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, with an Archaeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization (1879)
- Introduction to Four Months in Liberia, by William Nesbitt (1855)