May 6, 1812 – Birthdate of Martin Delany

On this day in history, Martin Delaney, considered to be the grandfather of Black Nationalism, was born was born free in Charles Town, West Virginia (then part of Virginia, a slave state).

As formal education for blacks was forbidden in Virginia, Delany and his siblings taught themselves to read and write from a book given to them by a peddler. When they were discovered, their mother had to move her children to the free state of Pennsylvania.

As an adult, Delany became active in politics, attending his first National Negro Convention in Philadelphia in 1835. He wrote about public issues and was published in both black and abolitionist newspapers.

Martin Delany

Martin Delany

In 1847, Delany, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison began a newspaper that became The North Star. The business end was handled by Douglass, and Delany traveled to lecture, report, and obtain subscriptions, frequently confronted by violent mobs.

Delany also studied medicine, apprenticed himself to a doctor, and was accepted at Harvard Medical School. He and two other black students lasted there a month before white students successfully petitioned for their removal. Undaunted, he moved to Detroit and opened a medical practice, and when, in 1854, the city was hit by a cholera epidemic, Delany was one of the few doctors to stay and care for the sick.

But Delany was becoming more radical, convinced that the white ruling class would not allow persons of color to get ahead in society. His stance alienated more moderate abolitionists, who resented his criticism of those who opted for segregation in their own businesses and social organizations. In a book published in 1852, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, he called for blacks to emigrate from the United States. Delany later wrote to Garrison:

I should be willing to remain in this country, fighting and struggling on, the good fight of faith. But I must admit, that I have not hopes in this country—no confidence in the American people — with a few excellent exceptions.”

Delaney moved to Canada from 1856 to 1859, after which he left for Liberia to investigate its potential as a new black nation. He signed an agreement with eight chiefs in the Abeokuta region that would permit settlers to live on “unused land” in return for applying their skills for the community’s good. But the treaty was dissolved because of regional warfare, white missionary opposition, and the start of the American Civil War.

At the end of 1860 Delany returned to the U.S. and began recruiting black men for the Union Army.

In early 1865 Delany met with Lincoln and proposed a corps of black men led by black officers to win over Southern blacks. Delany was commissioned as a major a few weeks later, becoming the first black line field officer in the U.S. Army and achieving the highest rank an African American would reach during the Civil War. After the war, he remained with the Army and later transferred to the Freedmen’s Bureau, serving for a short time on Hilton Head.

Martin R. Delany was the only black officer who received the rank of major during the Civil War.

Martin R. Delany was the only black officer who received the rank of major during the Civil War.

Delany continued to be politically active in the years after the war, but was widely regarded as too radical. He began practicing medicine again, and died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1885.

You can read his book,The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, (1852) online, here.


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