Born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) on May 6, 1812, Martin Robison Delany spent his life ending slavery. He was a successful doctor, one of the first African Americans admitted to Harvard Medical School, who used his influence to educate others about the evils of slavery through a series of publications on abolition. Later, he served during the Civil War. Delany died on January 24, 1885, in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Martin Robison Delany was born free on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia, now West Virginia.
According to the family’s information, Delany, the youngest of five children, was the son of a slave and the grandson of a prince. All his grandparents were brought from Africa to be slaves, but the father of his father would be a village chief and the father of his mother, Prince Mandingue.
Her mother Pati may have gained her freedom for this, so she worked as a tailor, while her husband Samuel was a bonded carpenter.
Pati was determined to educate her children, but Virginia was a slave, and the sheriff was informed that she had first taught them to read and write in New York for spelling and reading, which she acquired from a street vendor. He quickly moved his family to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Samuel could not join them until a year later; he had bought freedom.
Delany continued her studies in Pennsylvania, alternating with work to help support her family. When he was 19, he traveled 160 miles to Pittsburgh to attend Bethel Church and Jefferson College Black School, where he studied Latin, Greek, and the classics.
He was also apprenticed to several doctors in general to learn medicine.
Life of Activism
In Pittsburgh, Delany was active in activist activities, such as running a budget committee to help move evicted slaves, helping create the Young Men’s Society for Literature and Moral Reform, and joining an integrated militia to help defend
the black community against the attacks of the white crowd.
He traveled the Midwest, New Orleans, and Arkansas, including a visit to the Choctaw Nation, before settling in 1843 and marrying Catherine Richards, daughter of a wealthy merchant. They continued to have 11 children
Delany revived his interest in medicine, but he also founded The Mystery, the first African-American newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains. Other publications collected his articles on various aspects of the anti-slavery movement, and his popularity began to spread. Still, a libel suit against him, filed by (and won) by Fiddler Johnson, forced him to sell newspapers.
Frederick Douglass quickly hired Delany to write for his North Star newspaper in 1847. Still, they did not always agree on the right direction for the abolition movement, and the collaboration ended after five years.
Delany was one of the first three blacks to enroll at Harvard Medical College in 1850, but a white protest forced him to leave after his first term.
He wrote the book “The Origin and the Objects of Ancient Freemasonry.” Its introduction to the United States and the legitimacy of people of color, and before that the condition, elevation, emigration, and the plight of people of color in the United States who are considered political, a treaty was exploring the possibility for black people to return to their native Africa.
This prompted a trip to Nigeria in the mid-1850s to negotiate land for African American emigrants as well as to explore Central America and Canada as an option. Delany wrote about what he found there, as well as about the novel Blake: About The Huts of America.
The emancipation proclamation gave Delany hope that emigration might not be necessary, and he became active in promoting the use of African Americans in the Union army, recruiting
one of his children, Toussaint L’Ouverture Delany, at the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
In 1865, he reportedly met with President Lincoln to discuss the possibility of African American officers leading African American troops. As the Civil War Commander of the 104th Regiment of the United States Colored Forces, Delany became the first African American rank in the army.
After the war, Delany tried to get into politics. The near biography, written by journalist Frank A. Rollin, The Life, and Services of Martin R. Delany (1868), was a stepping stone to sit on the Executive Committee of the Republican State and run as vice-governor of the South Carolina
Although he supports the work and advancement of African Americans, he would only support specific candidates if he thought they were fit to serve. But his support helped elect South Carolina’s governor, Wade Hampton, and he was appointed to the court of the first instance.
Delany continued his emigration initiatives when the black vote was abolished, who served as chairman of the Finance Committee of the Liberia Exodus Action Steamship Company.
In 1879 he published “The Principle of Ethnology,” “The Origins of Race and Color,” with a book of Egyptian archaeological and civilization codes, years of scrutiny and research, detailing the cultural achievements of African peoples as stones of racial pride. But in 1880 he returned to Ohio, where his wife worked as a seamstress, to practice medicine and to help educate his children at Wilberforce College.
Frederick Douglass’ most famous quote about him underscores Delany’s legacy as a spokesperson for black nationalism: “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks him for making him a man black.”
Death and Legacy
Martin Delany died of tuberculosis on January 24, 1885, in Wilberforce, Ohio. They are described as a Renaissance man: editor, publisher, author, doctor, lecturer, judge, commander of the American army, political candidate and prisoner (for the deception of the church), and the first African American to visit Africa as a researcher and a businessman.
“Delany is a figure of extraordinary complexity,” wrote historian Paul Gilroy, “whose political trajectory through abolitionism and expatriates, from Republicans to Democrats, dissolves any simple attempt to fix him as conservative or radical.”