Delany, Martin R. 1812–1885
Martin R. Delany 1812–1885
Abolitionist, military leader, writer
Martin R. Delany was for many years a vigorous and effective black leader and thinker. His analysis of the prospects for African Americans in the United States led him to become a founder of black nationalism and advocate of emigration, eventually focusing on a return to Africa. He was always a spirited defender of the black race. Victor Ullman in Martin R. Delany quoted Frederick Douglass in Douglass’ Monthly of August 1862: “I speak (said [Delany]) only of the pure black uncorrupted by Caucasian blood.” In his lectures he passed all others in silence. This feature of his discourses is so marked and decided as sometimes to make the impression on those who do not know Mr. Delany, that he has gone about the same length in favor of black, as the whites have in favor of the doctrine of white superiority. He stands up so straight that he leans back a little.
Martin Robison Delany was born on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, then in Virginia and now in West Virginia, to Samuel Delany, a slave, and Pati Peace Delany, a free woman of color. Martin Delany’s ancestry was purely African, and he believed—most probably quite correctly—that he was descended from royalty on both sides. Delany took fierce pride in his ethnic identity. Frank Rollin (Frances Rollins Whipper) wrote in her Delany biography: “It is frequently said by those best acquainted with his character, that in order to excite envy in him would be for an individual to possess less adulterated blackness, as his great boast is, that there lives none blacker than himself.” She also quoted the famous Douglass quip, “I thank God for making me a man simply; but Delany always thanks him for making him a black man.”
Pati Delany got into legal trouble in 1822, probably in the wake of white reaction to the discovery of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, the most extensive slave revolt in U.S. history. She had violated the law by teaching her children to read. She surreptitiously moved her family to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in that year. Samuel Delany, in the meantime, had also proved troublesome. In 1822 he resisted being whipped by an overseer; a very strong man, Delany merely tore off the overseer’s clothes nine times in a row. Either through buying his freedom or through flight, he was able to join the family in Chambersburg in 1823.
Little is known about Martin’s life in Chambersburg except that he was able to continue his education until
Born on May 6, 1812 in Charls Town, West Virginia; died in January of 1885 in Wilberforce, Ohio; son of Samuel and Pati Peace Delany; married Catherine Richards; seven children. Education: Harvard Medical School.
Career: Abolitionist; Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society, officer; The Mystery, publisher; North Star, co-editor with Frederick Douglass; wrote The condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, 1852; published The Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent, 1854; wrote novel Blake, 1859; commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army, 1865; real estate agent; The Charleston Independent, editor; trial judge, 1875-76; published Principles of Ethnology: The Origins of the Races With an Archaeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization, 1879.
the marriage of his older brother Samuel in 1827. At that point, he was obliged to work to help support the family. Four years later, Martin set out on foot for Pittsburgh in search of more education. Although he traveled extensively during the period, Pittsburgh would be his home for the next 25 years.
Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh’s small but growing black community, Delany soon established his credentials as a leader among such prominent blacks as the barber and abolitionist, John B. Vashon, the father of poet and lawyer George Boyer Vashon. He was an officer of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society, as well as other literary, temperance, and moral reform societies. Probably the most important of these was the Philanthropic Society, a very effective fugitive slave organization.
Delany furthered his education in a night school held by Lewis Woodson in the basement of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and received further tutoring from a young black divinity student, Molliston M. Clark, a future editor of the Christian Recorder. In addition to this schooling, Delany received enough training from a white doctor to set himself up as a cupper, leecher, and bleeder in 1836.
By 1838 Delany was recognized by blacks and whites alike as a community leader, and the following year he was instrumental in averting mob violence directed against blacks through a plan of pairing armed blacks with whites to patrol the streets. He was also very active in the protest movements following Pennsylvania’s abolition of the right of blacks to vote.
In 1843 Delany married Catherine Richards, the youngest daughter of Charles Richards, a butcher and reputedly the wealthiest black in Pittsburgh. Between 1846 and 1864 the couple had seven surviving children. It was Catherine’s skill as a seamstress which later supported the family and made her husband’s travels and political activities possible.
Soon after their marriage Delany began to publish The Mystery, the first black newspaper west of the Alleghenies. Only a very few issues of this four-page weekly survive. The paper ceased publication in 1847. The AME Church took over the paper’s subscription list to establish a national organ, the Christian Herald, later renamed the Christian Recorder, published continuously to this day. Delany then joined Frederick Douglass as co-editor of his North Star. Delany toured the Midwest to seek out news and subscribers for the paper. He often spoke three times a day, facing great hostility, and on one occasion narrowly escaped lynching. Delany’s letters to the paper became a regular feature in the weekly.
By joining Douglass in opposition to Garrisonian leadership in the anti-slavery movement, Delany took a firm first step toward radicalism. The followers of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator called for moral suasion as the way to end slavery, while Douglass and others favored political action. Delany’s travels gave him wide experience of the events leading up to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and he began to despair of prospects for blacks in the United States. In June of 1849 Douglass indicated that henceforth he would be sole editor of the North Star, although Delany’s contributions to the paper continued.
After seeking more medical training unsuccessfully in Pennsylvania and New York, Delany was admitted to Harvard Medical School in November of 1850. White students protested, and Delany was permitted to finish the semester but barred from further study. Nonetheless, he assumed the title of doctor (there were no licensing requirements at that time). Delany returned to Pittsburgh where he organized resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, practiced medicine, and served for a year as the principal of the “colored” school. His despair at the worsening conditions faced by blacks led him to endorse emigration as a solution. In 1851 he went to Canada for the first time to attend the North American Convention held by Henry Bibb, a prominent leader of emigrants to that country.
Delany’s position on emigration as a solution to the problems faced by black Americans came through clearly in the small book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered. Delany went beyond advocating the contemplation of emigration as a possibility to urge serious planning and exploration. In the text his suggested destination was Central or South America; in an appendix, Africa. The book met with condemnation on all sides—prominent black leaders like Douglass simply ignored it in print. Nevertheless it struck a chord in the black community strong enough to draw 100 men and women to Cleveland on August 24-26, 1854, to the National Emigration Convention organized by Delany. This convention has been cited by authors like Victor Ullman as marking the birth of a new concept of black nationalism. The convention established Delany as the head of a board charged with finding a homeland for blacks in Central or South America.
About this time Delany moved his family to Chatham, Ontario, where they were part of the more than 10,000 black emigrants to Canada in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1858 Delany helped John Brown organize a secret gathering in Chatham, but by the time of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, Delany was in Africa. A third Emigration Convention was held in Chatham in August 1858, and Delany proposed to investigate the Niger Valley in Africa as a site for a colony. The officers of the convention were opposed to Africa as a destination but did not block Delany’s acting on his own. Delany and Robert Campbell, a chemist and head of the science department at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, set out for Africa in May 1859, where they traveled in Liberia and the Niger Valley, leaving Africa in April of the following year for an extended stay in Great Britain.
Delany had begun publish a novel, Blake, in 1859 in the Anglo-African Magazine but publication broke off when he left for Africa. For many years this was the only portion known to scholars but more was discovered, though not the conclusion, in the Weekly Anglo-African of 1861 and 1862. Book publication of what remains did not take place until 1970. This early black separatist novel is important for African American literature. Leading literary historian Blyden Jackson wrote: “Blake contains more than its share of puerile passages. ‖ But Blake lacks art, not mind. There was, and is, nothing small about Delany’s grasp of the realities which meant much to his circumstances as a Negro in America in the 1850s. And into Blake he carried his perception of those realities, the largeness of his vision of them.”
Delany was successful in negotiating a treaty with local authorities in Africa which gave African Americans the right to establish a colony. Interest among Londoners in Delany’s explorations led to many speaking engagements and an invitation to attend the International Statistical Congress, a major scientific gathering in July of 1860. There Lord Brougham called attention to his presence. Delany rose to thank him, saying according to his own account in the Rollin biography, “I rise, your royal Highness [Prince Albert], to thank his lordship, the unflinching friend of the negro [sic], for the remarks he has made in reference to me and to assure your royal highness and his lordship that I am a man.” Brougham’s intervention, the reply of Delany, and the applause aroused in the audience offended the American ambassador, who was present on the platform, and caused the American delegation to walk out of the meeting. The hubbub nearly caused a diplomatic incident and took some time to die down.
Delany returned home to Canada by Christmas of 1860. He published the Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party simultaneously in London and New York in 1861. This publication launched him on a further round of speaking engagements. He firmly rejected the project of emigration to Haiti supported by fellow emigrationist and future Anglican bishop of Haiti, James T. Holly. Setting up headquarters for a while in Brooklyn, he pressed on with his efforts for colonization in Africa. They fell through when the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina opened the Civil War and radically changed the terms of the debate.
Lincoln’s changing stances—initially he favored colonization and did not speak of abolition of slavery—caused difficulties for blacks. On July 16, 1862, a Congressional committee published Delany’s 1854 pamphlet in favor of emigration, The Political Destiny of the Colored Race On the American Continent as propaganda in favor of Lincoln’s colonization plan. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that support of Lincoln and the war effort became widespread among blacks. When Lincoln approved the acceptance of black troops in the Union army, Delany became an effective official recruiter.
In 1864 Delany moved his family to Wilberforce, Ohio, to a house which became the final family home although Delany himself was seldom there. He, his wife, and two of his children are buried there. One attraction of the location was the opportunity for the education of his children furnished by the preparatory school of the AME’s Wilberforce University. Delany’s papers and memorabilia were stored in the main building of the university, which was totally destroyed by fire on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, 1865, days after the Civil War ended.
At the time he moved to Ohio, Delany was pressing a plan to recruit black troops to be commanded by black officers, with a major effort to be made in the South. On February 8, 1865, he had an interview with President Lincoln, who not only accepted the plan but arranged to have Delany commissioned as a major in the U.S. Armythe first black field officer. Delany was ordered to Charleston, South Carolina, and was present at the raising of the flag at Fort Sumter on April 14, the fourth anniversary of the surrender. Delany began to recruit vigorously but was ordered to suspend his efforts on June 7 due to the cessation of hostilities. Delany was transferred to Beaufort, South Carolina, and placed under the command of the Freedman’s Bureau. His career with the army and the bureau ended in August of 1868.
Delany aroused alarm in the army and among other whites by his fire-eating speeches to black audiences on the Sea Islands. Nonetheless his popularity among blacks and his efficiency at his job protected his position. He persisted in spite of President Andrew Johnson’s restoration policies which returned land on the Sea Islands to the original owners—blacks were able to hold on to only about ten percent of the lands abandoned by whites fleeing the occupation of the U.S. Army earlier in the war. Delany even won the grudging admiration of white planters as his policies brought prosperity and stability to the region.
White political leadership was restored in South Carolina by Johnson’s activities and lasted until First Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867, placed the army in control of the provisional state governments. Ullman argued in the Delany biography that it was the only the efforts of the commanding general, Daniel E. Sickles, and Delany together with those of a few other moderate leaders that prevented open warfare between blacks and whites during the period.
Blacks voted for the first time in South Carolina in November 1867, almost unanimously supporting a state constitutional convention to be held in January and February of 1868. Delany attended the convention as much his army duties allowed. Also during summer and fall of 1867 he worked with Frances Rollins (Whipper) on his biography, published the next year.
By the end of 1868 Delany had handed in his final accounts to the Freedmen’s Bureau and left the army. He lobbied for an appointment as minister to Liberia and also undertook a lecture tour, selling his biography as a sideline. In his lectures he managed to alienate most of the black leaders by demanding a pro rata share of patronage for blacks from the Republican Party; that is, a quota system. After spending a few months in Wilberforce and then two in Washington, D.C., Delany returned to South Carolina early in 1870. During his time in Washington, he was principal speaker at the first mass meeting at the founding convention of the Negro National Labor Union on December 6.
Delany did not re-enter politics for two years. He set himself up as a real estate agent, but economic conditions undermined his chances for success as did his involvement in the successful 1872 gubernatorial campaign of Franklin J. Moses Jr., who quickly showed himself as more corrupt than his predecessor. Disillusioned, Delany found a minor clerical job with the federal government. He now completed his alienation from much of the national black leadership by joining a revolt against the regular Republican machine. He broke rank in the governor’s election of 1874 to run as a candidate for lieutenant governor of an independent Republican faction opposed to the regular Republican nominee. Delany’s party lost, but the conservative Democrats who supported the independent Republicans took control of 14 of 32 counties.
Delany’s influence was not destroyed by the results of the election. From August to December of 1875 he was again editor of a newspaper, the Charleston Independent. He also began to practice medicine again. In a strange twist in South Carolina politics, Delany became a trial justice on October 8, 1875, named by his opponent in the governor’s race of the year before, Daniel H. Chamberlain.
Delany was active and competent as a judge but he ran into legal problems. He was convicted in February 1876 of defrauding a church of $212. He had received the money in 1871 and placed it Charleston County Tax Anticipation Warrants, which later proved worthless. Deeply wounded by the conviction, Delany admitted owing the money but vigorously denied committing fraud and appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. After negotiations for a pardon broke down, Chamberlain removed Delany as a trial justice; his nomination had never been officially presented to the legislature. Only on August 29, the eve of the new gubernatorial elections, and under pressure from Delany’s friends, did Chamberlain issue a pardon.
Delany was not won over; he announced that he would support Democrat Wade Hampton for governor. No one knows who actually won the South Carolina election that year since fraud and violence were widespread. Hampton was declared the winner by the congressional investigating committee; thus, the state’s electoral vote remained in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes. This enabled Hayes to win the presidency by one electoral vote, 185 to 184. Hayes upheld his end of the bargain by ending Reconstruction in the South.
Hampton did not break his promises to blacks even as his party was organizing to eliminate the Republican Party as a political force in the state. Delany held the position of trial justice for two years under Hampton until Hampton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1879. By 1878 Delany was again taking up emigration as a solution for the problems of blacks. Many southern blacks shared this vision, most prominently the 20,000 who joined the millenarian attempt to emigrate to Kansas from 1878 to 1879. Delany worked to forward the colonization efforts of the Liberian Exodus Joint Steam Ship Company, which went bankrupt after carrying seven shiploads of emigrants to Liberia.
Despite the disappointment of his hopes in South Carolina by 1880, Delany did not return home to Wilberforce, turning instead to medicine to support himself. He continued to lecture and sold his Principles of Ethnology: The Origins of the Races with an Archaeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization to his audiences. Late in 1884 Delany returned to Wilberforce; he died there in January of 1885.
After his death, Delany fell into oblivion. It took more than 100 years and the rise of modern black nationalism for second and third full-length biographies to appear almost simultaneously. The ongoing reexamination of 19th-century black history that has flourished in recent years allows him to be restored to his rightful position as one of the most important black leaders and thinkers of his era.
Griffith, Cyril E. The African Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.
Jackson, Blyden. A History of Afro-American Literature. Vol 1. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Litwack, Leon, and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
Miller, Floyd J., editor. Delany, Martin R. Blake; or, The Huts of America, Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
Rollin, Frank A. (Frances Rollins Whipper). Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1868.
Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of An Afro-American: Martin Robinson Delany. Garden City, NY: Double-day, 1971.
Surkamp, Jim. To Be More Than Equal: The Many Lives of Martin R. Delany 1812—1885. http://www.wvu.edu/~library/delany/home.htm
Ullman, Victor. Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
—Robert L. Johns
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