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Martin Delany
Martin Delany
Born May 6, 1812
Charles Town, West Virginia, United States
Died 24 January 1885 (aged 72)

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Martin Robison Delany (May 6, 1812 – January 24, 1885) was an African-American abolitionist, race traitor, and arguably the first proponent of American black nationalism. He became the first African American field officer in the United States Army during the Civil War.

Early life and education[]

Delany was born a free black man in Charles Town, West Virginia (then part of Virginia) to Pati and Samuel Delany. His father Samuel was a slave but his mother was free. Delany's paternal grandfather was a Gullah, while his maternal grandparents were born in Niger and of Mandika ethnicity, where his grandfather was said to have been a prince.[1] 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.

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. It was illegal in Virginia to teach black people literacy. When the book was discovered in September 1822, Pati took her children to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to ensure their continued freedom. They had to leave their father Samuel, but a year later he managed to buy his freedom and rejoined his 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. He harbored ambitions to visit Africa, which he considered his spiritual home.

Marriage and family[]

While later living in Pittsburgh, in 1843 Delany met and married Catherine A. Richards. She was the daughter of a successful food provisioner. The couple had eleven children, seven of whom survived into adulthood.


On arrival in Pittsburgh, Delany became a student of the 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 a cholera epidemic in 1833, Delany became apprenticed to Dr. Andrew N. McDowell, learning fire cupping and leeching. He continued to study medicine under the mentorship of Dr. McDowell and also other abolitionist doctors, such as Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne and Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam of Pittsburgh.

Delany also became more actively involved in political matters. He attended his first Negro Conference in 1835. 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 looking after fugitive slaves.

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 Martin 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 University, after presenting letters of support from seventeen physicians. The month after his arrival, however, a group of white students made written complaint to the faculty that they thought "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."[citation needed] Within three weeks, Delany and his two fellow black students had been dismissed, despite dissenting opinion at the medical school. Furious, he returned to Pittsburgh.

Delany was convinced that the white ruling class would not allow deserving persons of color to become leaders in society. His opinions became more extreme. His book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered argued that blacks had no future in the United States.[2] 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 racial segregation among Freemasons, a fraternal organization.

In 1859 and 1862, Delany published parts of Blake: Or The Huts of America, a novel concerning an insurrectionist's travels through slave communities, as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. He believed that she 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.[3] 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 they did not know 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.[4] 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 significant number of women attendees who also voted for the resolution. It is considered the foundation of black nationalism.

Travels overseas[]

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.

The Army[]

File:Major Martin Delany.jpg

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."

A few weeks later, Delany was commissioned as a major, becoming the first black line field officer in the U.S. Army. After the war, he remained with the Army and served under General Rufus Saxton in 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.

Later life[]

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. 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, Charleston-based blacks started planning again about 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 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Martin Delany as among the 100 Greatest African Americans.[5]


Delany's 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.[6]

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!


See the bibliography, "Martin Delany's Writings", West Virginia University Library, on line.


  1. Glasco (2004), p. 56
  2. Martin Robison Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, Black Classic Press (1993) ISBN 0933121423
  3. "Stand still and see the salvation", Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture, University of Virginia, on line, accessed 14 Jan 2009
  4. "The National Emigration Convention of Colored People", 'Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University (On line)
  5. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  6. Stephen Foster, "Old Uncle Ned", Musica International, accessed 14 Jan 2009
  7. A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, America in the Niger Valley: A Colonization Centenary Phylon 22:4; 23 225-39 (1962)


  • Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2. p. 236.
  • Gilroy, Paul. "The Black Atlantic". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Glasco, Laurence Admiral, The WPA history of the Negro in Pittsburgh, Univ of Pittsburgh Press, 2004, ISBN 0822942321

External links[]

This article contains material written by James Surkamp and released into the public domain. The original material can be found at the Martin Delany homepage.

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