Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Martin Delany, born May 6, 1812




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. 


Both sets of Martin Delany's grandparents were African.  Samuel's parents were of  Gola ethnicity (from modern-day Liberia), taken captive during warfare and brought as slaves to the Virginia colony. Family oral history said that his grandfather was a chieftain, escaped to Canada for a period, and died resisting slavery abuses.

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.  

Having heard stories about his parents' ancestors, Martin wanted to visit Africa, which he considered his spiritual home.

When Martin 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, 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. 

In 1831, at the age of 19, he traveled 160 miles west by foot to the growing city of  Pittsburgh, where he became a barber and laborer. 

He was 49 years old when the Civil War began.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1830
Delany became a student of Reverend Lewis Woodson of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Lewis Woodson
Afterward, he began attending Jefferson College, where he was taught classics, Latin and Greek by Molliston M. Clark.

Jefferson College
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 Dr. McDowell and other abolitionist doctors, such as Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne and Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam of Pittsburgh.

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.


In 1839, Delany toured Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, observing slave life.

While living in Pittsburgh, Delany met Catherine A. Richards, the daughter of a successful food provisioner, said to be one of the wealthiest families in the city. They married in 1843.  The couple had eleven children, seven of whom survived into adulthood.

William Lloyd Garrison
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



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.

Frederick Douglass 
When 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.




John McLean
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.

Salmon P. Chase
Delany 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, 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. Delany also criticized racial segregation among Freemasons.

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.

In 1856, Delany moved to Canada with his wife, Catherine, and their children. 


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.  The treaty was later dissolved due to warfare in the region, opposition by white missionaries, and the advent of the American Civil War.

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. 

In 1861, 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.
United States Colored Troops
In 1863 after Abraham Lincoln called for a military draft, Delany began recruiting black men for the Union Army.  His efforts in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Ohio raised thousands of enlistees, many of whom joined the newly formed United States Colored Troops

Delany was granted an audience with Lincoln in February 1865. 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. 

Martin Delany
After the war, he remained with the Army and served under General Rufus Saxton in the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops. 

Rufus Saxton
He was later transferred to the Freedman's Bureau, serving on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  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.


Delany spent most of the remainder of his life in South Carolina.  He continued to be politically active, and 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 the later 1870s, the gains of the Reconstruction period began to be pushed back by more conservative elements. Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts suppressed black voting in South Carolina.

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 1879, one of his sons, Charles Lenox Delany, drowned in the Savannah River.

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. 

He rejoined his family in Ohio in December 1884.  On January 24, 1885, he died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio, at the age of 72.

Delany's Tombstone
He was buried in Massie's Creek Cemetery, in Xenia, Ohio.

Monument to Delany
"His was a magnificent life," W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1936, "and yet, how many of us have heard of him?"

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