Delany, Martin R.

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Delany, Martin R.

May 6, 1812
June 24, 1885


Abolitionist and writer Martin Robison Delany was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now Charleston, West Virginia); his mother was free, his father a slave. Delany grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and was educated at the school of the Rev. Louis Woodson in Pittsburgh. His mentor was the well-to-do John B. Vashon. In 1843 Delany married Catherine Richards and began his career as a medical doctor and abolitionist. From 1843 to 1847 Delany published the first African-American newspaper west of the Alleghenies, The Mystery. In 1847 he joined Frederick Douglass as coeditor of the newly founded Rochester North Star, in which his letters provide valuable commentary on antebellum free blacks.

In the 1840s Delany and Douglass criticized the American Colonization Society's advocacy of emigration of free African Americans to Liberia, which Delany, like most blacks, saw as forcible exile. But as the decade ended, Delany and Douglass grew apart. Delany left the North Star in 1849, advocating more black self-reliance than Douglass, who welcomed the support of white reformers. The strengthening of the federal Fugitive Slave Laws and his frustration with his fellow blacks prompted Delany to withdraw from reform in 1850 and attend the Harvard Medical School until he was forced out in 1851.

The crisis of the 1850s distressed northern blacks, many of whom fled to Canada to avoid reenslavement and harassment. Four years before moving his family from Pittsburgh to Chatham, Canada West (now known as Ontario), Delany published the first book-length analysis of the economic and political situation of blacks in the United States: The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852), which is cited for its nationalism and advocacy of emigration out of the United States. In 1859 the Anglo-African Magazine and in 18611862 the Weekly Afro-American published his only novel, Blake, or the Huts of America, in serial form.

During the 1850s Delany moved from cautious endorsement of emigration within the Americas to planning African-American colonies in West Africa. He organized emigration conferences in 1854, 1856, and 1858, and in 1854 he published The Political Destiny of the Colored Race, a pamphlet that recommended emigration. In late 1858 he sailed to West Africa, visiting Alexander Crummell in Liberia in 1859. In December of that year, in the company of Robert Campbell, a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, he signed a treaty with the Alake of Abeokuta, in what is now western Nigeria, providing for the settlement of educated African Americans and the development of commercial production of cotton using free West African labor. Before the first group of settlers could leave for West Africa, however, the Civil War broke out and the plan never materialized.

In 1863 the War Department reversed its refusal to enroll black volunteers in the Union army, and Delany became a full-time recruiter of black troops for the state of Massachusetts. One of the earliest volunteers in the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was Toussaint Louverture Delany, his oldest son. (The Delanys had named each of their seven children after a famous black figure.) In early 1865 Martin Delany was commissioned a major in the Union army, the first African American to be made a field officer. He finished the war in the South Carolina low country and began to work for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau).

Immediately after the war, Delany was a popular speaker among the freedpeople, for he symbolized both freedom and blackness. But as the years passed and the South Carolina Republican Party became the party of the poor and black, Delany also began to question its ability to govern South Carolina as a whole. He went into the real estate business in Charleston and drifted into conservatism. By the mid-1870s he was criticizing South Carolina blacks and white carpetbaggers (he, too, was a carpetbagger) for demagoguery and corruption. In 1874 he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the slate of the Independent Republicans, a coalition of conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats. By 1876 he was supporting the candidacy of the Democratic candidate for governor, Wade Hampton III, who had been the richest slave owner in the South before the war. Hampton and the Democrats were elected and by 1879 had purged the state of all black officeholders, including Delany.

At sixty-seven Delany once again dedicated himself to emigration, this time to Liberia, with the ill-fated Liberian Exodus Joint-Stock Steamship Company. His last acts were the publication of Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races with an Archaeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization and selling his book on a lecture tour. He died in Wilberforce, Ohio.

See also Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; Civil War, U.S.; Crummell, Alexander

Bibliography

Griffith, Cyril E. The African Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Levine, Robert S., Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Miller, Floyd J. The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Painter, Nell Irvin. "Martin Delany and Elitist Black Nationalism." In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by August Meier and Leon Litwack. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Ullman, Victor. Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

nell irvin painter (1996)
Updated bibliography