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Martin R. Delany

Martin R. Delany

Born May 6, 1812
Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia)
Died January 24, 1885
Wilberforce, Ohio

Black abolitionist and political activist
First black field officer in the Union Army

"[Black] elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and the work of [their] own hands. No other human power can accomplish it."

Martin R. Delany was one of America's leading black political activists of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, he became a leading abolitionist (person who works to end slavery). From the 1850s through the 1870s, his political beliefs changed, and he became one of the country's best-known supporters of black emigration (leaving one country to settle in another country) to Africa and pan-Africanism (a belief that all black peoples should unite to improve their lives). Delany is also well known for his Civil War activities. He was a leading recruiter of black soldiers for the Union Army, and in 1865 he became the first black soldier ever to be named a field officer in the U.S. military.

Exposed to prejudice at early age

Martin Robinson Delany was born in 1812 in Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia). His father was a slave. But since his mother was free, Martin and his four brothers and sisters were also considered to be free blacks. Their mother's legal status thus saved them from childhoods of enslavement. But even though he did not experience slavery firsthand, Delany grew up around slavery. In addition, he was exposed to terrible racial prejudice against blacks from a very early age. When he was a youngster, for instance, his father was sent to prison for a significant period of time because he resisted a white man's attempts to beat him. Such incidents showed young Delany that blacks occupied an inferior position in Virginia society. Nonetheless, he grew up with a healthy sense of his own worth, in part because his grandmother made him aware of his proud African heritage.

In 1819, the state of Virginia passed a law that made it illegal for any black children—whether free or enslaved—to attend school or receive any kind of educational instruction. A white salesman traveling through Virginia, though, gave the Delany family some educational materials so that the children could learn to read and write. Three years later, local authorities arrested Delany's mother and charged her with violating the 1819 law. Concerned that the courts might punish her by separating her from her children, she promptly gathered her family together and fled to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Delany's father joined them in Chambersburg one year later, after buying his freedom from his master.

Joins abolitionist movement

In 1831, Delany left his family to study religion and medicine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his stay in Pittsburgh, he became increasingly involved in efforts to help fugitive slaves from the American South gain their freedom in the Northern states or Canada. He also made a visit to the South in 1839 in order to study slavery practices. As he journeyed through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, he was shocked at the poor living conditions and vicious treatment that many slaves endured. When he returned to the North, he felt an even greater dedication to end slavery in the United States.

During the 1840s, Delany became an increasingly visible figure in the Northern antislavery movement. In 1843, he started a magazine called Mystery, which he used to speak out against slavery and to call for equal rights for blacks in America's Northern states. That same year he married Cathrine A. Richards, with whom he had a total of thirteen children over the years. In 1847, he stopped publication of Mystery and became a coeditor of the famous antislavery newspaper The North Star with abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895; see entry) for the next two years.

Calls for emigration from United States

The 1850s were busy for Delany. In 1850, he enrolled in Harvard Medical School, where he hoped to continue his medical education. But the faculty forced Delany and two other black men to leave the school's medical program after one term because of protests by some white students. Cyril E. Griffith wrote in The African Dream that the Harvard incident provided Delany with yet "another concrete example to his expanding catalogue of injustices northern whites committed against black men. [Delany saw it as] further evidence that black self-determination [the right of a people to decide their own political status] would be difficult to achieve in America."

As the 1850s progressed, Delany's views increasingly placed him in disagreement with Douglass and other black abolitionist leaders. He charged that many white abolitionists did not really believe in racial equality, and complained that free blacks continued to rely too much on whites for direction. "We find ourselves occupying . . . a secondary, underling [inferior] position, in all our relations to" white abolitionists, he stated. "[Black] elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and the work of [their] own hands. No other human power can accomplish it."

Delany also came to believe that the best way for black Americans to improve their lives was to leave the United States and relocate in areas with a large nonwhite population, like Central America, South America, the West Indies, and Africa. Once they emigrated, they could unite with other blacks and work together for the benefit of all black peoples without relying on anyone else. In an 1852 book titled The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, Delany wrote that black people hunger for "the day when they may return to their former national position of self-government and independence, let that be in whatever part of the habitable world it may. . . .Our race is to be redeemed [restored]; it is a great and glorious work, and we are the instrumentalities [tools or agents] by which it is to be done. But we must go from among our oppressors; it never can be done by staying among them."

Delany spent the rest of the decade advancing his dream of mass black emigration from the United States to a new homeland. He helped organize a National Emigration Convention that met throughout the 1850s, and in 1859 he led a delegation (group of representatives) called the Niger Valley Exploring Party to Africa. This group explored sections of Liberia and Nigeria, scouting for places that black Americans might join with Africans to build a healthy new society.

Delany and the American Civil War

When Delany returned to North America in 1860, he was confident that he could convince large numbers of blacks to resettle in Africa with him. He was joined by other organizations that urged free black Americans and Canadians to build new lives for themselves in Africa, the West Indies, and other areas of the world with large black populations. But as Cyril Griffith noted in The African Dream, "this pressure . . . to leave the continent came at the very moment when the Civil War presented them with the opportunity to participate in the struggle to free millions of their brethren [brothers] enslaved in the South."

The American Civil War began in April 1861, when differences between the nation's Southern and Northern states finally erupted into armed conflict. The two sides had been arguing over several issues—including slavery and the power of the national government to regulate it—for many years. Many Northerners believed that slavery was immoral. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the United States and form their own country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.

In 1861 and 1862, Delany continued trying to arrange a mass exodus (departure) of free blacks to a region of western Nigeria called Yorubaland. But interest in his emigration plans faded, especially after President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This proclamation declared that all slaves within the Confederacy were free and called for the inclusion of blacks into the United States armed services. When black Americans learned of Lincoln's announcement, they reacted with joy and expressed optimism for their future. As prospects for a brighter future in America increased, they became less interested in Delany's calls for relocating thousands of miles away.

Delany, meanwhile, contributed his efforts to the Union cause. In 1863, he began recruiting free blacks for several all-black Union army units. One of these units was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, which eventually became one of the most famous fighting units of the entire war. Delany soon became known as one of the North's best recruiters. He tirelessly urged black volunteers to come forward, proclaiming that "millions of your brethren still in bondage implore [urgently request] you to strike for their freedom." Despite his recruiting work, however, Delany recognized that black soldiers often encountered discrimination even within the Union Army. He worked hard to change unfair rules and treatment wherever he found them.

In addition to his recruiting activities, Delany worked on behalf of blacks in other ways. He lobbied (attempted to influence) the Federal government to form an entirely independent army composed exclusively of black troops. He also urged the Union to promote deserving blacks to positions of authority (black men were not allowed to become officers at this time). In February 1865, he was granted a meeting with President Lincoln in which he explained his proposals. Lincoln was very impressed with Delany, and he agreed that blacks should not be disqualified for officer positions just because of the color of their skin. Lincoln quickly arranged to make Delany an officer in the U.S. Army. On February 27, 1865, Delany was commissioned (given official rank) as a major, becoming the first black man to hold a field command in American history.

Postwar career

Delany spent the last few months of the Civil War continuing his recruiting activities. After the North defeated the South to end the Civil War in the spring of 1865, he became a military aide to the Freedmen's Bureau. This organization was charged with helping former slaves secure education, employment, and other assistance. Leaving his family in Wilberforce, Ohio, he traveled to South Carolina to begin his new duties.

Delany devoted a great deal of time and effort to his new job. But his calls for black self-reliance sometimes clashed with government policies, so he became a controversial figure within the Bureau. He and many other officers assigned to the Freedmen's Bureau were discharged from the army in the summer of 1868. Around this same time, Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the legal status of citizens for the first time in the nation's history.

Delany remained in South Carolina during the 1870s, where controversy continued to follow him. He continued to urge black Americans to take pride in their ancestry, and remained a leading defender of Africa's proud history and future potential. But he also allied himself with the Southern Democrats, who had been fiercely proslavery before and during the Civil War.

Delany joined with the Democrats because he thought that Republicans were no longer making much of an effort to secure civil rights for blacks. He believed that Southern blacks had a better chance of improving their lives if they cooperated with the Democratic Party, which was dominant throughout the South. His alliance with the Democrats, however, drew heavy criticism from other members of South Carolina's black community. Delany ran for political office on several occasions during this decade, but each effort ended in defeat. In the early 1880s, he resumed his medical practice, rejoining his family in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1884. He died one year later.

Where to Learn More

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.

Martin Delany Home Page. [Online] http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/delany/home/htm (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of an Afro-American: Martin R. Delany, 1812–1885. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.


Secretary of War Stanton Issues a Historic Order

In February 1865, Martin Delany was commissioned (given official rank) as the first black field officer in U.S. history. The following letter, written by U.S. secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton (1814–1869), formally announced this historic appointment:

The Secretary of War of the United States of America

To all who shall see these presents, Greetings;

Know ye, that, reposing [having] special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor [courage or bravery], fidelity [faithfulness to duty], and abilities of MARTIN R. DELANY, the President does hereby appoint him Major, in the One Hundred and Fourth Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, in the service of the United States, to rank as such from the day of his muster [enlistment or entrance] into service, by the duly appointed commissary [officer] of musters, for the command to which said regiment belongs.

He is therefore carefully and diligently [with dedication] to discharge the duty of Major by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging. And I do strictly charge, and require, all officers and soldiers under his command to be obedient to his orders as Major. And he is to observe and follow such orders and directions, from time to time, as he shall receive from me or the future Secretary of War, or other superior officers set over him, according to the rules and discipline of war. This appointment to continue in force during the pleasure of the President for the time being.

Given under my hand at the War Department, in the City of Washington, D.C., this twenty-sixth day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty five.


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