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Posted on February 19, 2021 at 7:26 AM by Melissa Dalton
Last week, Robin gave me an article she found in some Parks & Trails boxes. This article discussed the life of Martin Robison Delany, a Civil War veteran and advocate for African American rights. I wasn’t familiar with Major Delany, but after a little bit of research, became fascinated with his life and achievements.
Martin Delany was born a free person on May 6, 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia (now part of West Virginia). Although Delany’s father was enslaved, under Virginia slave laws, the child took on the status of the mother. As his mother was free, Delany was also free. Delany’s grandparents were all born in Africa, the oral tradition of the family claimed that his parents were of royal descent.
When Delany was about ten years old, he and his family moved to Pennsylvania after it was discovered that his mother was teaching herself and her children to read (which was prohibited under Virginia law). He was only afforded an education through elementary school, but continued his own studies through reading. Delany had a thirst for knowledge, and at the age of nineteen, made his way to Pittsburgh, and began taking classes through the AME Church. Around 1832, Delany secured an apprenticeship with a white physician, and studied fiercely for medical school.
In 1843, Delany married Catherine Richards of Pittsburgh, and the couple had eleven children. In the same year, Delany founded a black newspaper called The Mystery. Delany’s work was revered, and he was often reprinted in other publications, including the well-known abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In 1847, Delany met Frederick Douglass, and the two later founded the North Star (Fig 1). This publication provided African Americans an opportunity to tell their stories in their own voices.
Fig 1. The North Star, 8 March 1850 (Library of Congress)
Delany continued his medical studies, and in 1850, was accepted into Harvard Medical School, along with two other black men. However, within a few weeks, he and his fellow black students were dismissed due to protests of white students and staff. This event only increased Delany’s cynicism of the future of African Americans in the United States. In his 1852 book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered, Delany argued that African Americans may be better off emigrating to Canada, South America, or Africa.
Delany actually moved his family to Canada in 1856 and worked as a conductor in the Underground Railroad (Fig 2). In 1859, Delany traveled to Liberia in the hopes of locating a place for the relocation of African Americans. He was unsuccessful in securing land, and upon returning to the United States, decided to work towards the emancipation of slaves.
Fig 2. 1861 Canada Census (Ancestry.com)
In 1863, Delany began working to recruit black men to serve as part of the 54th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops. In 1865, Delany met with President Lincoln and proposed a unit of black soldiers led by black officers. Lincoln was impressed, describing Delany as “a most extraordinary and intelligent man.” As such, Delany was commissioned as a Major, becoming the only black officer to receive said rank in the Civil War (Fig 3).
Fig 3. Martin Robison Delany (FindAGrave.com)
The Delany family moved from Canada to Wilberforce, Ohio in 1864 to provide better education opportunities for their children. However, Delany stayed in Charleston after the war to assist in the Reconstruction efforts, and continued his political pursuits. He supported black farmers, traveled and supported the Colored Conventions Movement, worked as a trial judge, and ran for various elected offices. In 1880, Delany began practicing medicine again to help support two of his sons with tuition at Wilberforce University.
On January 24, 1885, Martin R. Delany died of tuberculosis at the age of 72. Delany was buried in Massies Creek Cemetery. Catherine died on July 11, 1894 and was buried next to Delany, as were three of their children. The graves were unmarked for over a century, besides a small marker for Delany. However, in 2006, funds were raised to erect a monument of African granite for the grave site for Delany and his family (Fig 4).
Fig 4. Gravestone for Martin Delany and family (FindAGrave.com)
Delany achieved more than many men of his day, gaining titles such as abolitionist, journalist, physician, soldier, writer, and judge. He dreamed big, fought for the rights of all. Martin R. Delany truly was an extraordinary man.
Until Next Time!
Greene County Archives
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