October 4, 2013, 1:02 pm By ETHAN J. KYTLE
“We most heartily endorse the earnest and energetic efforts being put forth by Mr. Delaney, and John Jones of this city, towards the enlistment of volunteers for the Artillery Brigade, to be composed entirely of colored men,” announced The Chicago Tribune on Oct. 2, 1863. The article focused on black Union recruitment in the city, a process that had been in full swing for months across the North and Union-occupied South. But the paper was burying the lede: by the fall of 1863 Mr. Delany – Martin Robison Delany, the nation’s foremost advocate for black migration out of the country – had become one of Uncle Sam’s best recruiters.
Since the 1850s, Delany had urged black Americans to band together and leave the United States for Latin America or Africa. After traveling to Western Africa to scout out potential sites for a black colony at the end of the decade, he spent the first few years of the Civil War spreading the gospel of emigration across the North. In March 1863, he visited Chicago, where, decked out in the “the wedding dress” of an African chief, he offered a series of lectures on African economic and cultural potential.
Yet Delany never left for Africa. Just weeks after touting the continent in Chicago, in fact, he began recruiting black soldiers for the all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Over the next few years, Delany helped to fill several more black regiments before earning a major’s commission in the Union Army and heading to South Carolina in early 1865.
Why did Delany — who has been portrayed as “the founding father of black nationalism” — plant his stake in American soil?
The answer lies in the fact that contrary to what subsequent generations believed, Delany was never a black separatist. Union recruitment, like emigration before it, was largely a tactical shift for him. He never viewed the creation of an independent black nation as a goal in and of itself. What Delany cared about most was the destruction of slavery and other barriers to African-American uplift, by any means necessary.
A free-born African-American from Virginia, Delany had been an active social reformer since he settled in Pittsburgh in the 1830s. He was a leader of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society and Young Men’s Literary and Moral Reform Society, as well as the founder and editor of two important black newspapers, The Mystery and, with Frederick Douglass, The North Star.
Unlike many antebellum reformers, Delany was flexible when it came to the question of how to combat slavery and racial injustice. He thought that black institutions — churches, schools and newspapers — were essential tools, but he also worked closely with white abolitionists. He admired the Garrisonians’ rejection of the Constitution and strategy of moral suasion, which sought to effect change by converting hearts and minds, but unlike them he did not agree that engagement in a political system was “a naive plunge into a smarmy world of compromise and accomodation.” Indeed, despite being disenfranchised by Pennsylvania state law, Delany actively campaigned for Liberty Party candidates in the 1840s.
In other moments, though, Delany was among the most militant voices in the country. After escaping a white mob in mid-1848, he advised free blacks to study “military tactics … so as to enable them to measure arms with assailants without and invaders within.” The following year he called on American slaves to join “the oppressed of every nation” in a global war for freedom. “Let him be taught that he dare strike for liberty,” he wrote, “let him know this, and he at once rises up disenthralled — a captive redeemed from the portals of infamy to the true dignity of his nature — an elevated freeman.”
As American racial politics worsened in the early 1850s, however, Delany became convinced that the reform solutions that he had promoted since the 1830s — self-help, moral suasion, political agitation, violent resistance — were ineffectual. Emigration, he concluded, was the only hope for black Americans. He announced this new stance in his 1852 work “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,” which became the most influential emigration manifesto of its day. This hastily penned book outlined the obstacles African-Americans faced, their achievements despite limited opportunities and a plan for mass emigration.
Delany initially counseled his brethren to move to Central America, South America or the West Indies, but by the end of the decade he had set his sights on Africa. In 1859, he went on a nine-month scouting expedition to Western Africa, where he negotiated a treaty for land upon which to locate his colony.
Delany’s African emigration plan tapped into his faith in black-led reform efforts, his avowed racial pride and his romantic attachment to African history and culture. It did not, however, bespeak a belief that whites and black were incompatible, despite the critiques of colleagues like Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. As Delany wrote Garrison in 1852, “I am not in favor of caste, nor a separation of the brotherhood of mankind, and would as willingly live among white men as black, if I had an equal possession and enjoyment of privileges.” Delany simply refused to “be reconciled to live among” whites, “subservient to their will — existing by mere sufferance, as we, the colored people, do, in this country.”
Emigration, then, was a fresh approach to a new context. Increasingly alienated from his “own native land,” as Delany called the United States, the black emigrationist wanted to build a colony in which African-Americans were part of the body politic. “A people, to be free, must necessarily be their own rulers,” he argued in 1854, “that is, each individual must, in himself, embody the essential ingredient — so to speak — of the sovereign principle which composes the true basis of his liberty.”
Even as he promoted emigration, Delany did not give up on more localized solutions to the problems that plagued black America. Despite believing that his African colony would have a “reflex influence” on the United States that would “cleft the manacle of every slave in the land,” Delany continued to support more direct assaults on slavery. In May 1858 he organized and chaired a convention for John Brown, who was recruiting black troops for his war against slavery.
The following year, Delany began publishing “Blake; or the Huts of America,” a serialized novel that imagined a hemispheric-wide slave revolt led by the Cuban-born hero Henry Blake. After escaping from a Mississippi plantation, Blake travels across the Deep South, “sowing the seeds of future devastation and ruin to the master and redemption to the slave.” Eventually, Blake returns to Cuba, where he gathers a large group of followers who declare him “General-in-Chief of the army of emancipation of the oppressed men and women of Cuba!”
Delany outlined a similar plan in the first few months of the Civil War, telling a fellow abolitionist that he hoped to create an all-black Union “corps d’Afrique” modeled on the Zouaves, an elite French North African fighting force who were renowned for their valor, martial prowess and distinctive uniforms (they wore fezzes, baggy red trousers and loose jackets). Although this bold vision never came to fruition, it suggests that from the earliest days of the conflict Delany was thinking about ways to turn the war into a vehicle of emancipation in which black men played a leading role.
That opportunity at last emerged on Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation. By not only immediately freeing slaves in rebel territories but also calling for the recruitment and arming of black men, the president seemed to be working directly out of the Pittsburgh activist’s playbook.
Within months of the proclamation, Delany shifted from steering black men across the Atlantic toward sending them south to fight the Confederacy. The War Department’s change in policy, in other words, led Delany to make yet another tactical shift. It was a brand new day, he announced in a recruitment poster: “Colored citizens: The hour you have so long waited for has struck. Your country calls you. Instead of repelling, as hitherto, your patriotic offers, she now invites your services … The millions of your brethren still in bondage implore you to strike for their freedom. Will you heed their cry?”
Many did. Over the next couple years, Delany — who was the first African-American to earn a state recruitment contract — filled regiments for Rhode Island, Ohio, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Buoyed by this record of success, he dreamed of expanding his recruitment efforts into the Confederacy.
In early February 1865, Delany visited the White House to pitch Lincoln on a plan to form a new black army, which would be “commanded entirely by black officers, except such whites as may volunteer to serve.” He predicted that this force could “penetrate through the heart of the South, and make conquests, with the banner of Emancipation unfurled, proclaiming freedom as they go, sustaining and protecting it by arming the emancipated, taking them as fresh troops, and leaving a few veterans among the new freedmen, when occasion requires.” Finally, the Union would benefit from the full weight of the millions of slaves who still lived behind Confederate lines.
According to Delany’s account of the meeting, Lincoln responded enthusiastically to this proposal, calling it “the very thing that I have been looking and hoping for; but nobody offered it.” Turning toward Delany, he then asked, “Will you take command?” Delany agreed. Not long after, he became the first black man commissioned as a major in the Union Army.
Before he headed south, Delany visited Xenia, Ohio, where he gave a speech “in full uniform.” A white reporter described the remarkable scene: “Major Delany … is black — black as the blackest — large, heavy set, vigorous, with a bald, sleek head, which shines like a newly polished boot. And he wears brass buttons and shoulder straps! and is an officer in the army of the Union! These sentences record the history of the progress of the country during the war!”
African-Americans elsewhere got their own glimpse of this striking encapsulation of the changes wrought by the Civil War that spring. To honor Delany’s recent commission, The Weekly Anglo-African advertised a 25-cent postcard portrait of the nation’s leading black emigrationist, who had traded his African dashiki for Union blue.