Martin Robison Delany was an extraordinary man—author, educator, poet, abolitionist, newspaper editor, explorer, inventor, physician, judge, and champion of African-American rights. And though he was also the first Black field officer in the history of the U.S. Army—appointed by President Abraham Lincoln himself—his legacy has in many ways been lost to history.
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]orn in 1812 to a free mother and a slave father in what was then Charles Town, Va., Delany began preaching equal rights for African Americans as early as the 1830s, and for decades advocated the establishment of an independent homeland for America’s Black population. Prior to the Civil War, he traveled to Africa, explored regions of Nigeria, and made a treaty with the local chiefs for the settlement of African-American émigrés. He partnered in Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, and authored several books and treatises on the “Destiny of the Colored People of the United States.”
When John Brown planned his ill-fated 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry, he reached out to Delany for counsel. For decades, Martin Delany was globally recognized as one of the nation’s foremost African-American spokesmen and activists. Yet with one pivotal political decision, he eventually wrecked his own career and doomed himself to historical oblivion.
Although Delany’s upbringing was humble, he descended from African royalty, according to family oral history. When Martin was 10, his mother—in order to avoid official sanctions for teaching her children to read and write—moved him and his four siblings to Chambersburg, Pa., soon joined by his father, who had managed to purchase his own freedom. At 19, Delany relocated to Pittsburgh, where he attended school and took an interest in medicine. During the Pittsburgh cholera epidemic of 1833, he apprenticed himself to a physician as a “bleeder, cupper, and leecher.” He would maintain a successful practice for years.
From early youth, Delany dedicated himself to the fight for racial freedom and full civil rights for America’s Blacks. It became his life’s driving purpose. In 1831, at the country’s first National Negro Convention in Philadelphia, Delany was among 38 free Black delegates from seven states. Two months later, a more assertive group—the Colored Citizens of Pittsburgh—met under the leadership of Black businessman John B. Vashon. An uncompromising militant, Vashon was a courageous activist who proved a great inspiration for Delany.
Growing increasingly vocal, Delany founded and led various African-American youth organizations promoting education in Pittsburgh. In September 1843, he founded The Mystery—the first African-American newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains—for which he served as reporter, editor, and publisher. He used the paper to advertise Black-owned businesses, warn his readers about the presence of slave catchers, and rage against racial inequity. He hammered home the fact that America’s Blacks went unrepresented in Congress and the courts, leaving them no legal recourse, even though “our hoary headed father or mother may be maltreated, abused or murdered, our wives and sisters ravished before our eyes!” He railed against white churches that tolerated slavery. “[T]he very man who hands you the bread of communion,” he wrote, “has sold your daughter away from you.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”] For decades, Delany was globally recognized as one of the nation’s foremost African-American spokesmen and activists.[/quote]
When the Mexican War began in 1846—President James K. Polk’s thinly veiled strategy of extending the United States’ domain to the Pacific—Delany editorialized against it, attacking the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as both imperialistic and racist. He was absolutely fearless. “I care but little what white men think of what I say, write or do,” he declared. “My sole desire is to so benefit the colored people; this being done, I am satisfied—the opinion of every white person in the country or the world to the contrary notwithstanding.”
All aspects of Delany’s life conveyed unflagging devotion to his cause. That included the names of his 11 children—seven of whom survived—such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Ethiopia, Rameses, Alexander Dumas, and Faustin Soulouque, in tribute to the emperor of Haiti.
In his mid-30s, Delany developed a close relationship with the famed Frederick Douglass. A dynamic writer and speaker, Douglass established The North Star in 1847 and invited Delany to join him in its publication. For the next year and a half, Delany lectured, wrote, and traveled on behalf of the paper and in pursuit of civil rights for his people.
Delany had never abandoned his pursuit of medicine, and he soon left The North Star to further his medical career. Douglass used his influence to convince Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., dean, to admit his friend and two other African Americans to Harvard Medical School. Harvard’s white students objected, however, and petitioned the medical faculty to have them removed. “[W]e deem the admission of blacks to the medical Lectures,” they wrote, “highly detrimental to the interests, the welfare, of the Institution of which we are members, calculated alike to lower its reputation in this and other parts of the country.” The teaching staff concurred; Holmes bowed to faculty pressure and expelled the three at the end of their first term. Undeterred, Delany continued to practice medicine all his life.
Douglass would remain Delany’s friend, but Martin’s radical approach to Black rights and unilateral equality outstripped even the renowned writer and activist, ultimately driving a wedge between the two. At no time was this more sorely felt than during Delany’s vigorous pursuit of a homeland to resettle America’s Black population.
Well into his 40s, Delany found himself abandoning the hope of emancipation and equality in his own country. “I…would as willingly live among white men as Black,” he wrote, “if I had an equal possession and enjoyment of privileges….But I must admit I have no hopes in this country—no confidence in the American people.” He began formulating a plan to establish a homeland outside the United States.
He was not the first to entertain the prospect of racial separation. In 1816, political luminaries, including Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Chief Justice John Marshall, President James Monroe, future President Andrew Jackson, and former President James Madison, created the American Colonization Society—an organization whose espoused purpose was the “repatriation” in Africa of America’s free-born and manumitted Blacks. They selected what they deemed a suitable location on Africa’s west coast, named it “Liberia”—Land of Freedom—and called the capital “Monrovia,” after the president. Over the next few decades, Black colonists sailed to Liberia, where they endured deprivation, starvation, deadly diseases, and attacks by indigenous tribes.
Most African Americans rejected the notion of leaving America under the banner of the ACS. Wrote Douglass: “[W]e claim no affinity with Africa. This is our home…the land of our forefathers….The best blood of Virginia courses through our veins.”
Delany disagreed. Although he was also strongly opposed to any attempt to create a Black homeland sponsored by America’s ruling whites, most of whom were slaveholders who believed free Blacks would incite slave uprisings, Delany supported the idea of establishing a Black nation elsewhere—preferably in Africa, but possibly in Canada or Latin America. When the first of Delany’s books—The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered—was published in 1852, it quickly became a rallying cry for those Blacks who had lost hope of achieving equality in America.
Delany’s reputation grew in the decade before the Civil War. In 1854, he organized Cleveland’s four-day National Emigration Convention. It was attended by 145 advocates, 29 of whom were women—including his wife, Catherine. At the conference, Delany read his paper, “Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent,” espousing a position that went beyond that of other Black leaders. Among its points, the convention resolved “that, as men and equals, we demand every political right, privilege and position to which the whites are eligible in the United States, and we will either attain to these, or accept nothing.”
These incendiary comments challenged the thinking of even the most progressive African Americans. At this point, Douglass distanced himself even further from his former partner, writing, “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany always thanks Him for making him a Black man.”
By mid-decade, Delany saw nothing on the national horizon to convince him that either Congress or the states were planning anything positive for Black Americans. Already bitter over such developments as the 1845 annexation of Texas as a slave state, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and his ouster from Harvard, he grew increasingly disheartened over the lack of support from such noted friends and colleagues as Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
Delany moved to Canada, where he continued to promote his plans for a homeland for ex-slaves. In 1859, he traveled to Africa to serve as commissioner of the latest emigration convention, and to scout a suitable site for his colony. He explored various regions, focusing mainly on today’s Nigeria, and signing treaties with local chiefs. As one biographer observed, “He…led the first party of scientific exploration to Africa from the American continent.” From this experience came his 1861 book Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party.
To raise money for his plan—and in response to the runaway bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he pilloried as offensive and unrealistic—Delany published Blake, or the Huts of America, a serialized novel (1859-62) in which he described his own travels through the slave South. “My soul is vexed within me so,” he wrote. “To think that I’m a slave, I’ve now resolved to strike the blow, for Freedom or the grave.”
By the time Delany returned home in December 1860, South Carolina had seceded. Although funding for Delany’s colony was in place and a number of potential settlers stood ready to sail for Africa, he saw for the first time that emancipation at home was possible and decided to remain in the United States and help in the fight for liberation.
Throughout the war, Delany campaigned for enlistment of Black troops and was responsible for recruiting thousands from the Northeast and Midwest. In 1863, he traveled through Ohio, Connecticut, and Rhode Island on recruiting campaigns. His own son, Toussaint L’Ouverture, would fight with the immortal 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
In February 1865, Delany’s reputation earned him a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, to whom he proposed an entirely Black corps commanded by Black officers—a Corps d’Afrique—to be utilized to its fullest capability. As Delany later recalled the conversation, Lincoln began by asking what he could do for his visitor. “‘Nothing, Mr. President,’ I replied, ‘but I’ve come to propose something to you, which I think will be beneficial to this nation in this critical hour of her peril.’”
Lincoln was so impressed with Delany that he sent a note to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, urging, “Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent Black man.” There is no record Stanton complied; however, about three weeks after their conversation, Lincoln commissioned Delany a major in the U.S. Colored Troops, and on February 27, Stanton assigned him to Maj. Gen. Rufus Saxton, superintendent of recruitment and organization of colored troops in the Department of the South. Delany approached the assignment with his customary dynamism, vigorously recruiting Black men into the ranks. When the war ended a few months later, up to 180,000 African Americans had volunteered for service, and Delany was the U.S. Army’s highest-ranking Black field officer in uniform. (Francis E. Dumas, one-eighth African American, had been promoted to major in the 2nd Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards earlier in the war but had resigned his commission in July 1863. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard eventually became the USCT’s 73rd Infantry.)
In April 1865, after the Union capture of Charleston, S.C., the War Department invited Delany—along with luminaries like Henry Ward Beecher and William Lloyd Garrison—to speak at the ceremony marking the re-raising of the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter. No longer needed to recruit, Delany began working with the Bureau of Refugees. On July 15, 1865, he was assigned to the 104th USCT, but remained on detached duty with the Freedmen’s Bureau until he mustered out on August 5, 1868. Over the next few years, he served as a lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina Militia, and was a spokesman for the Republican Party. But his political fortunes soon changed.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]‘I…would as willingly live among white men as Black if i had an equal possession and enjoyment of privileges.’ -Maj. Martin Delany[/quote]
In 1869, Delany applied to newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant for the position of minister to Liberia. Neither Grant nor Secretary of State Hamilton Fish would respond. He then wrote to Reconstruction South Carolina Governor and former Union Brevet Maj. Gen. Robert K. Scott, requesting the relatively minor post of jury commissioner of Charleston County, but Scott gave the post to another applicant.
Delany ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of South Carolina in 1874. He supported white office seekers who had made promises on behalf of the state’s Black population—promises the officials invariably ignored once elected. He was appointed a trial justice, but in 1876, he was tried on trumped-up, politically motivated charges of “defrauding a church.” Although the facts of the case should have absolved Delany of blame, he was convicted and imprisoned. Despite receiving a gubernatorial pardon, he lost his judgeship.
Having grown increasingly frustrated with the rampant political corruption that undermined Reconstruction, as well as the federal government’s failure to honor its commitment to freed slaves, Delany in 1876 did the unthinkable: He switched parties, leaving the party of Lincoln to support the Democratic gubernatorial candidacy of former Confederate general—and onetime slaveowner—Wade Hampton III. His reasoning was simple: He saw Hampton as the best hope for his people. Hampton had repeatedly stated that if elected, “I shall know no party, nor race, in the administration of the law.” Delany signed on.
It did not help Delany’s image or reputation that he found himself sharing support for Hampton with such men as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who once wrote, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man…”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Delany convinced enough Black voters to help swing the election in Wade Hampton’s favor, despite the ostracism they faced within their own communities.[/quote]
Delany threw himself into the campaign energetically, using his powerful oratory on behalf of the candidate. The results were not always peaceful. Riots were started by men of both races and parties, leaving dead and injured in their wake. Perhaps the worst incident took place in July 1876 in the African-American community of Hamburg, where hundreds of armed whites attacked Black members of the National Guard. Besides those who were killed in the one-sided fight, four of the captured Black men were cold-bloodedly executed. The invaders then looted the town.
Unfazed by threats to his safety, Delany spoke eloquently of the corruption, the broken promises, and the hopelessness of supporting the Republican Party. For the first time, however, a majority of the state’s Black population stood against him. The editor of the Charleston News and Courier accurately predicted, “Maj. Delany will, doubtless, be soundly abused for talking plainly to his people….”
On October 14, 1876, just three weeks before the election, Delany was scheduled to speak at a Republican rally on Edisto Island, near Charleston. He and other Democrats of both races had been promised they would be allowed to address the crowd of predominantly Black Republicans without disruption or violence. A crowd of some 500–600 Black Republicans, later described by a News and Courier reporter on hand as “the most uncouth, savage and uncivilized that I have ever seen,” had forced passage to the island for the express purpose of “cleaning out those Democrats.” According to the reporter: “As soon as Col. Delany mounted the wagon, the Negroes started to beat their drums and left in a body. They would not listen to ‘De damned N—– Democrat.’”
When quiet was finally restored, Delany was invited to go on with his speech; he refused, stating that he had spoken before nobility in Europe and Africa and had never suffered such disrespect as that shown him today by members of his own race. He surrendered the platform to a Charleston teacher, but before the man could begin, someone in the audience, mistaking him for Delany, fired a shot. Though the bullet missed, the rally was over.
Two days later, October 16, Democrats, Black and white, held a rally of their own near Cainhoy, a small community 10 miles upriver from Charleston. Scheduled to speak, Delany was confronted by an armed mob of Black Republicans, most militia members. After the speeches began, shots from the crowd rang out. When the smoke cleared, seven of the unarmed Democrats were dead (six of those white) and 16 wounded. Delany had barely escaped with his life.
Political and racial violence would erupt elsewhere in South Carolina during the remaining days of the campaign. The day after the Cainhoy Massacre, Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain declared martial law, with President Grant’s support. When the votes of the November 7 election were counted, Hampton emerged victorious. Amazingly, Delany had managed to convince enough Black voters to help swing the election, despite the ostracism they faced within their own communities.
Hampton rewarded Delany with an important judgeship in Charleston and honored his campaign promises, including dispensing with the practice of peonage. When disgruntled constituents sent him a petition objecting to Delany’s appointment, Hampton stood firm. Nevertheless, a number of African Americans felt betrayed by Delany’s political about-face.
In 1878, Delany revisited his old scheme of establishing an African-American expatriate colony. With the ACS now bankrupt and out of the picture, he personally co-sponsored the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. The enterprise proved a dismal failure.
The following year, Delany wrote Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, which forcefully advocated maintaining the purity of the races. By this time, however, Delany’s political base, which had withered when he shifted allegiances, had further deteriorated with the advent of a new generation of Black leaders. The aging activist resumed his medical practice, while lobbying unsuccessfully for political appointment. Still dreaming of establishing a homeland in Africa, Delany died on January 24, 1885, at the age of 72.
Martin Robison Delany was a complex man. As one biographer put it, his “political trajectory through abolitionisms and emigrationisms, from Republicans to Democrats, dissolves any simple attempts to fix him as consistently either conservative or radical.” Sadly, history forgot about Martin Delany for a century. Indeed, in 1936, African-American scholar and historian W.E.B. DuBois observed, “His was a magnificent life, yet how many of us have heard of him?” It wasn’t until the 1970s, during a period of increased African-American awareness, that his legacy was revived, and he was touted as the “Father of Black Nationalism.”
At the end of his life, Martin Delany saw himself as a failure. Ultimately, however, although his efforts to establish a homeland for African Americans and to achieve parity at home came to naught, he was unflagging in his crusade to bring racial equality into the lives and minds of Americans. In the words of one biographer, “He gave black pride existence.”
Ron Soodalter, a regular America’s Civil War contributor, writes from Cold Spring, N.Y.