Martin Robison Delany was born free on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town in what became West Virginia. His father, Samuel, was an enslaved carpenter, and his mother, Pati, a free seamstress whose parents were African and, according to some accounts, of royal heritage. After having been found guilty of illegally teaching her children to read and write, Delany’s mother moved the family to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. (Samuel later bought his freedom and joined them.) In 1831, Delany journeyed on foot 160 miles west to Pittsburgh, where he studied Latin, Greek, classics, and medicine, apprenticing with an abolitionist doctor. Delany enrolled at Harvard University in 1850—he and two others were the first African Americans accepted to Harvard Medical School—but protests from white students forced his withdrawal after only a few weeks.
In 1839, Delany toured Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, observing enslaved life. He soon became a member of the abolitionist movement, founding and editing the Mystery, a Black newspaper, from 1843 until 1847, and co-editing with Frederick Douglass the North Star from 1847 until 1849. Douglass and the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison generally counseled peace and patience for enslaved people and integration for freed Blacks. When, in 1852, Delany wrote his manifesto, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, calling for emigration from the United States to Central America, it was viewed as a decisive break from mainstream abolitionism and, according to some scholars, the birth of Black nationalism. “I should be willing to remain in this country,” Delany wrote in a letter to Garrison, “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.”
Delany’s new militancy was manifest in his novel Blake; or, The Huts of America, which ran as a serial titled “Blake; or the Huts of America.—A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States and Cuba” in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859 and the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861 and 1862 (it was not published in complete book form until 1970). Hinting at the Weekly Anglo-African’s politics, a quotation under its masthead read, “Man must be Free!—if not through Law, why then above the Law.” Blake tells the story of a fugitive enslaved man who travels across the South and in Cuba organizing insurrection. In Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, he encounters mention of “the names of Nat Turner, Denmark Veezie, and General Gabriel“—all of whom led insurrections of enslaved people. These are “the kind of fighting men they then needed among the blacks,” Blake concludes and spreads the news of their long-ago deeds throughout the enslaved community. Referring to Turner’s 1831 uprising in Southampton County, he notes, “Southampton—the name of Southampton to them was like an electric shock.”
Delany’s story of an enslaved man fomenting rebellion stood in stark contradiction to the philosophies of Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. While Delany did not intend Blake to be a response to Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it still read like one, arguing that Christian endurance was not an adequate response to the horrors of slavery.
In 1856, Delany moved to Canada with his wife, Catherine, whom he married in 1843, and his children. (The couple had eleven children, seven of whom survived into adulthood.) He briefly dabbled in the politics of Liberia and during the Civil War helped to recruit and organize Black soldiers in the Union army. Commissioned a major in 1865 after meeting with U.S. president Abraham Lincoln at the White House, Delany became the U.S. Army’s first Black field officer. After the war, he was transferred to South Carolina, where he remained for much of the rest of his life. He was active politically, often supporting Democrats, though he ran as an independent Republican for South Carolina lieutenant governor in 1874 and lost the election to Richard Howell Gleaves. He also served as a trial justice in Charleston before charges of fraud were brought against him. He was forced to resign and serve a prison term. Delany pursued business interests and practiced medicine until his death in Ohio on January 24, 1885.
Delany emerged as a symbol of Black separatism during the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and as a result, he has been “invoked primarily as the dark binary opposite” of more moderate figures, from Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., according to Robert S. Levine. (Tunde Adeleke has attributed such appropriations to the New Negro history movement inspired by Carter G. Woodson.) Revisionist historians have since emphasized the complications of Delany’s character. “Delany is a figure of extraordinary complexity,” writes Paul Gilroy, “whose political trajectory through abolitionisms and emigrationisms, from Republicans to Democrats, dissolves any simple attempts to fix him as consistently either conservative or radical.” Unfortunately, Delany’s papers were destroyed in a fire at Wilberforce University in Ohio on April 14, 1865, leaving scholars forever to wonder which of his writings they haven’t read and what other directions his mind might have taken him.
- The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852)
- The Origins and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry: Its Introduction into the United States and Legitimacy among Colored Men (1853)
- Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent in Proceedings of the National Emigration Convention of Colored People Held at Cleveland, Ohio the 24th, 25th and 26th of August, 1854 (1854)
- Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861)
- University Pamphlets: A Series of Four Tracts on National Polity (1870)
- Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, with an Archaeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization (1879)
- Introduction to Four Months in Liberia, by William Nesbitt (1855)
- Blake; or, The Huts of America (serialized in Anglo-African, January–July 1859; Weekly Anglo-African, November 23, 1861–April 1862; published in book form in Boston by Beacon Press in 1970)