Martin Robison Delany was born free in Charles Town, Virginia (later West Virginia) to Pati Peace and Samuel Delany. Although his father, Samuel, was an enslaved carpenter, his mother was a free woman and a seamstress.
Pati's parents were born in the Niger Valley, west Africa, and were of Mandinka ethnicity. Her father was said to have been a prince named Shango, captured with his betrothed Graci and brought to America as slaves. After some time, they were given their freedom in Virginia, and Shango returned to Africa. Graci stayed in America with their only daughter Pati.
As he was growing up, Martin 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 to Chambersburg in the free state of Pennsylvania to ensure their continued freedom. They had to leave their father, but a year later Samuel bought his own freedom and rejoined the family in Chambersburg.
In Chambersburg, the young Martin continued learning. Occasionally he left school to work when his family could not afford for his education to continue.
|Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1830|
Delany became 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 in organizations caring for fugitive slaves who had escaped to Pennsylvania, a free state.
|William Lloyd Garrison|
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.
|Salmon P. Chase|
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, 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.
As a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1859 and 1862, Delany published parts of a novel, Blake: Or The Huts of America in serialized form. It 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. 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. 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.
Delany left Liberia in April 1860 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.
|United States Colored Troops|
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.
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.
Delany withdrew from the emigration project in 1880 to serve his family. Two of his children were students at Wilberforce College in Ohio, 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.
|Monument to Delany|