Martin R. Delany was an African-American Union Army major, physician, judge, abolitionist, and writer. He was the first black officer in the United States Army and one of the first to enroll at Harvard Medical School. Delany is sometimes known as the “Father of Black History,” for his political contributions and help in the establishing the black nationalist movement.
Youth and Family
Martin Robinson Delany was born in Charles Town, Virginia, now West Virginia, on May 6, 1813, a free man. His father, Samuel Delany, was a slave. His mother, Pati Delany, was free and he was able to obtain his freedom through hers under Virginia law. His grandparents on both sides were from Africa. His father’s parents were brought as slaves from Gola, now Liberia and his grandfather was a chieftain who escaped to Canada and died resisting an assault. His mother’s parents were of the Mandinka people in Niger Valley, West Africa. His grandfather, Shango, was a prince and he and his grandmother, Graci, also came to the United States as slaves. They were freed and he returned to Africa while Graci stayed to raise Pati. Delany’s mother carried him 20 miles to the Winchester courthouse after someone tried to enslave him. She declared her free status and guaranteed his freedom.
Education and Marriage
Delany did not allow the white protestors to stop him from becoming an important cultural icon for African-Americans during his time.
Pati Delany educated her children illegally at home since, at the time, Virginia outlawed the education of African-Americans. Upon being discovered, left behind her husband and took her children to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Samuel secured his freedom and rejoined his family soon after. Delany moved to Pittsburg in 1831, traveling the 160 miles by foot. He studied Greek, Latin, and the classics.
Delany apprenticed with an abolitionist physician before enrolling at Harvard Medical School in 1850 with two other black students, Isaac H. Snowden and Daniel Laing, Jr. Delany was forced to withdraw after only a few weeks due to white students protesting.
In 1843, Martin Robinson Delany met Catherine A. Richards and they married soon after. The daughter of a wealthy food provisioner, seven of their eleven children survived to adulthood.
Black Abolitionists and Nationalism
Martin R. Delany became politically active. He attended the 1835 National Negro Convention, where he was first introduced to black nationalism. He witnessed slave life on his tours of Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana in 1839 and became a vocal abolitionist.
Delany founded and edited the black newspaper, Mystery, from 1843-1847 and coedited the North Star with Frederick Douglass from 1847-1849. Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison headed the abolitionist movement and promoted tolerance and restraint to current slaves and patience for newly freed ones. In 1852, Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered which proposed African-American immigration to Central America and established the beginnings of black nationalism. This created a break with other black abolitionists who did not want to stop fighting and emigrate.
Delany’s experience at Harvard and his subsequent journey through the south of the United States fueled his abolitionism.
Delany led the Cleveland, Ohio National Emigration Convention in August 1854. In 1856, Delany and his family relocated to Chatham, Ontario in Canada. He then used his experiences in the U.S south to publish parts of an unfinished novel called Blake; or, The Huts of America as a counter to Harriet Beacher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Delany thought Stowe incorrectly portrayed slave life and thought Christianity not enough to abolish its horror. The first half of Part One was published in The Anglo-African Magazine in January through July 1859. The second half of Part One was published in The Weekly Anglo-Africa in November 1861 through May 1862. Floyd J. Miller recovered the remaining parts of Part Two and combined with Part One to publish an almost complete book in 1970.
The Civil War
Martin Delany recruited African-American men for the Union army after the President Abraham Lincoln instituted the draft in 1863. Almost 10% of the 179,000 black men Delany recruited to the United States Colored Troops actually served with the Union army. He met with the President in 1865 at the White House and was made a major after suggesting black officers leading a troop of black men could win  He remained in South Carolina for the remainder of his life when he moved there after the Civil War.
Later Political Career and Death
Martin Delany returned to politics and, in 1874, he ran for South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, but lost to Richard Howell Gleaves. He then served as a Charleston trial justice before he was charged with defrauding a local church. He resigned and spent a short time in jail. He influenced black voters and secured the election of Wade Hampton, a democrat, as Governor in 1876.
Delany retired from politics, started a business, and returned to practicing medicine. He died of tuberculosis on January 24, 1885, in Wilberforce, Ohio, where two of his children attended school. His wife had died the previous year and he was buried next to her in Cedarville, Ohio in the Massies Creek Cemetery. The grave remained unmarked until October 20, 2006, when the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center erected a monument over his grave to commemorate, “The Father of Black History”.
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