Delany, Martin Robinson (1812-1885)

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Martin Robinson Delany (1812-1885)


African american nationalist

Early Years. Born 6 May 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia, later the capital of West Virginia, Martin Robinson Delany was a third-generation American. All of his grandparents had been imported from Africa as slaves; his fathers father was a Mandingo prince and his mothers father was the chieftain of a Golah village. Delanys father remained enslaved but his mother was free, which meant that Delany was born free. Nevertheless, after a Northern traveler taught Delany and his siblings to read, white harassment induced his mother to move the family to Chambers-burg, Pennsylvania, where they were soon joined by Delanys father after he was able to purchase his freedom.

Reform Leader. At the age of nineteen Delany moved to Pittsburgh to study divinity and later medicine. He made the city his home for the next quarter of a century, participating in literary and temperance societies as well as the antislavery movement and the call for equal rights for blacks in the North. After briefly publishing his own newspaper, The Mystery, Delany joined the staff of Frederick Douglasss newspaper, North Star, in 1848. He traveled widely through the Midwest to promote the newspaper, deliver lectures, and report on racial conditions. In November 1850 he enrolled in Harvard Medical School, but because of protest by his fellow students the faculty dismissed him after one term. He returned to Pittsburgh and became active in resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but his own experiences and the course of the nation left him doubtful that the United States would ever recognize African Americans as equal citizens.

Emigration. With the publication of The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852), Delany became one of the leading proponents of African American emigration from the United States. We are a nation within a nation, Delany declared. We must go from our oppressors. After organizing a National Emigration Convention that met throughout the 1850s, he explored potential homelands in Central America and Africa. Between voyages he joined the approximately five thousand blacks who left the United States for Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. He kept in touch with the antislavery movement in the United States, however, and helped John Browns efforts to recruit blacks in Canada for a projected invasion of the South. Delany also advocated emigration in two important publications: Blake; or the Huts of America (1859), a novel about a slave rebellion, and Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861).

Army Officer. The African American debate over emigration, which assumed a new urgency while the federal government disavowed interference with slavery and refused to enlist black volunteers, quickly subsided after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Delany became a recruiter for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which had among its ranks his son Toussaint. (All of his children were named for heroic figures of African descent.) Delany continued his recruiting work for several other regiments; commissioned as a major, the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. Army, he ended the war recruiting former slaves in South Carolina. He remained in the state to serve in the Freedmens Bureau, helping to develop the educational, judicial, and contractual framework for the transition from slavery to free labor.

Reconstruction. Delany returned to civilian life in the summer of 1868, his eligibility for political office in Radical Reconstruction announced by the admiring Life and Services of Martin R. Delany (1868), written by woman journalist Frances Rollins Whipper under the pseudonym Frank A. Rollin. After serving on the Republican State Executive Committee, however, Delany entered into a coalition with Democrats seeking to redeem the state. In 1874 he ran for lieutenant governor on the conservative ticket of the Honest Government League, and two years later he supported the victorious gubernatorial candidacy of former Confederate general Wade Hampton. During the campaign Delany was attacked by a mob of African Americans outraged by his political stance. He soon began to focus again on plans for expatriation, aiding a company that transported emigrants to Liberia. His Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color (1879) drew on biblical interpretation and anthropology to detail the cultural achievements of African peoples and present a final expression of the racial pride that prompted Frederick Douglass to remark, I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks him for making him a black man. Delany died on 24 January 1885.


Dorothy Sterling, The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robinson Delany, 18151882 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971);

Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).

Martin Robinson Delany

views updated Jun 08 2018

Martin Robinson Delany

African American intellectual Martin Robinson Delany (1812-1885), a journalist, physician, army officer, politician, and judge, is best known for his promotion before the Civil War of a national home in Africa for African Americans.

Martin Delany was born free in Charlestown, Va., on May 6, 1812. His parents traced their ancestry to West African royalty. In 1822 the family moved to Chambersburg, Pa., to find a better racial climate. At the age of 19 Martin attended an African American school in Pittsburgh. He married Kate Richards there in 1843; they had 11 children.

In 1843 Delany founded one of the earliest African American newspapers, the Mystery, devoted particularly to the abolition of slavery. Proud of his African ancestry, Delany advocated unrestricted equality for African Americans, and he participated in conventions to protest slavery. Frederick Douglass, the leading African American abolitionist, made him coeditor of his newspaper, the North Star, in 1847. But Delany left in 1849 to study medicine at Harvard.

At the age of 40 Delany began the practice of medicine, which he would continue on and off for the rest of his life. But with the publication of his book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852; repr. 1968), he began to agitate for a separate nation, trying to get African Americans to settle outside the United States, possibly in Africa, but more probably in Canada or Latin America. In 1854 he led a National Emigration Convention. For a time he lived in Ontario. Despite his bitter opposition to the American Colonization Society and its colony, Liberia, Delany kept open the possibility of settling elsewhere in Africa. His 1859-1860 visit to the country of the Yorubas (now part of Nigeria) to negotiate with local kings for settling African Americans there is summarized in The Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861; repr. 1969).

When Delany returned to the United States, however, the Civil War was in progress and prospects of freedom for African Americans were brighter. He got President Abraham Lincoln to appoint him as a major in the infantry in charge of recruiting all-African American Union units.

After the war Delany went to South Carolina to participate in the Reconstruction. In the Freedmen's Bureau and as a Republican politican, he was influential among the state's population, regardless of race. In 1874 he narrowly missed election as lieutenant governor. In 1876, as the Republicans began losing control of the state, Delany switched to the conservative Democrats. Newly elected governor Wade Hampton rewarded him with an important judgeship in Charleston. As a judge, Delany won the respect of people of all races. In 1878 he helped sponsor the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company, which sent one ill-fated emigration ship to Africa. The next year his The Principia of Ethnology argued for pride and purity of the races and for Africa's self-regeneration.

When his political base collapsed in 1879, Delany returned to practicing medicine and later became a businessman in Boston. He died on Jan. 24, 1885.

Further Reading

A recent biography of Delany is Victor Ullman, Martin R. Delany:The Beginnings of Black Nationalism (1971). A contemporary account is Frank A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany (1868; repr. 1969). William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968), includes a biographical sketch. For the significance of Delany's black nationalist thought before the Civil War see Howard H. Bell, A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement 1830-1861 (1970). □

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