The name Martin R. Delany (pictured) may not ring in the minds of many African Americans; however, the American Civil War veteran, abolitionist, writer, and explorer is often said to be America’s first supporter of Black Nationalism. Delany lived a long and fruitful life, passing at the age of 72 on this day in 1885. NewsOne takes a look back to honor this amazing Black pioneer.
Martin Delany was on born on May 6, 1812, in Charleston, Wv., which was still part of Virginia, a slave state. His father, Samuel, was a slave, as were his captured African paternal and maternal grandparents. Delany was born free, due to his mother, Pati, also being born free as well.
Delany’s parents drilled in to their son that he was of royal African lineage during his early childhood.
Delany and his siblings learned to read and write at a young age, using a book given to them by a stranger. Educating Blacks was seen as a crime in Virginia, and after authorities discovered the book, Pati fled north with her children to Pennsylvania without their father.
Samuel would later buy his freedom and join his family in Chambersburg. As he grew, Delany attended school intermittently and worked to help his family. At age 19, he moved to the big city of Pittsburgh to find his way.
Delany married Catherine A. Richards, the daughter of a successful businessman. The couple bore 11 children, with just seven surviving into adulthood. Delany entered Jefferson College and also became deeply involved in church activities. His fortunes would drastically change, though, when in 1833, a cholera epidemic seized the nation: Delany became an apprentice to abolitionist doctors to help treat the disease using old techniques of “fire cupping” and “leeching.”
Even though he would go on to open his own dentistry and leeching practice to acclaim from his mentors, Delany was largely rejected by prominent medical schools because of racism.
He finally was admitted to Harvard in 1849, one of the first three Black men to ever enter the hallowed institution’s halls. Delany’s presence caused a huge stir, and he had to leave the school after a few months. This instance fueled his anger toward the White ruling class and formed the basis of his book “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered” (1852).
In the book, Delany suggested the Blacks take root in South America or in the West Indies. This book was seen as the first written work addressing Black Nationalism.
In 1859, Delany traveled to Liberia to see about creating a new Black nation for outside settlers. He made an agreement with eight chiefs to settle on unused land in return for goods and services. The treaty fell apart due to opposition by White missionaries, strife throughout the lands, and the impending American Civil War.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called for a draft, and Delany recruited men for the Union Army. His efforts made him the first Black front line field officer of the U.S. Army, where he achieved the highest rank of any other Black soldier during the Civil War.
Radical and determined for equality, Delany argued that free Blacks should own the lands they once tilled. He eventually resigned in 1865.
Delany worked in the Freedman’s Bureau on behalf of former slaves fighting for voting rights and other such matters. In 1874, he came just short of winning an election for Lieutenant Governor in South Carolina on the Radical Independent Republican Party ticket.
During the next voting cycle, he ran as a Democrat and won, gaining a judge position in the process. Although he was still promoting nationalism and emigration for African Americans who wanted to return to Africa, he had to pull back on the work to support his college-aged children. He continued practicing medicine while his wife worked as a seamstress. Martin Delany died of tuberculosis in 1885 in Wilberforce, Ohio.
The story of Martin R. Delany is a fascinating example of a Mother’s defiant courage to make certain her children would live up to their greatest potential. It highlights the struggles our ancestors endured, and how many of our people remained dignified even in the face of detractors looking to silence us. What should be gleaned from this amazing tale is that we all are here for purposes much larger than we can ever imagine.
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