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Martin, John Sella

Martin, John Sella

September 1832
August 1876

The minister and lecturer John Sella Martin was born a slave in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1832. The child of a mulatto slave and her owner's nephew, he was sold with his mother to people in Columbia, Georgia, and he remained a slave until his escape on a Mississippi riverboat in December 1855.

In January 1856, Martin arrived in Chicago where he associated with abolitionists and began his long career of oratory. His friend Frederick Douglass (18181895), in particular, was known to have admired his oratorical skills. In the latter part of 1856, he moved to Detroit, where he studied for the Baptist ministry. In 1857 he was ordained to preach and received the pastorate at Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York. In 1859 he moved to Boston and substituted for the vacationing preacher of Tremont Temple, drawing large, approving crowds. He then spent eight months as pastor of the Baptist Church in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which had a large white congregation, before accepting the pulpit of the Joy Street Church, one of the oldest black Baptist churches in Boston. During this same year, Martin published a poem, "The Sentinel of Freedom," in Anglo-African Magazine.

In August 1861, Martin made the first of several trips to England on a speaking tour sponsored by Massachusetts governor John Andrew to gain support for the Union during the Civil War. He returned to the United States in February 1862. On the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he addressed a famous meeting at Tremont Temple, as did Frederick Douglass. Later that month, Martin returned to Europe to preach in London at the behest of the industrialist Harper Twelvetrees. In April 1864, having journeyed back from England, he began to preach at Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York. The following April he returned to Great Britain in a fund-raising capacity for the American Missionary Association (AMA). As a delegate of the AMA, he delivered an address to the Paris AntiSlavery Conference on August 27, 1867.

One year later, Martin accepted the pastorate of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He attended the formation meeting of the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) in Washington, D.C., in December 1869, was appointed to its executive board, and was named editor of the CNLU's short-lived official organ, The New Era. When the publication foundered shortly afterward, he moved to New Orleans, where he was involved in local politics and earned his living as a lecturer. In 1875 he was a founding member and president of the New Orleans Atheneum Club and a member of the Louisiana Progressive Club. He died in Louisiana in 1876.

See also Abolition; Baptists; Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation in the United States


Blackett, R. J. M. Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

lydia mcneill (1996)

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