Martin R. Delany (1812–1885)


Martin R. Delany was an African American abolitionist, writer, editor, doctor, and politician. Born in Charles Town in what is now West Virginia, he was the first Black field officer in the United States Army, serving as a major during and after the American Civil War (1861–1865), and was among the first Black nationalists. A fiercely independent thinker and wide-ranging writer, he coedited with Frederick Douglass the abolitionist newspaper North Star and later penned a manifesto calling for Black emigration from the United States to Central America. He also authored Blake; or, The Huts of America, a serial publication about a fugitive enslaved man who, in the tradition of Nat Turner, organizes insurrection. In his later life, Delany was a judge and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor of South Carolina. Despite this, he remains relatively unknown. “His was a magnificent life,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1936, “and yet, how many of us have heard of him?” Historians have tended to pigeonhole Delany’s contributions, emphasizing his more radical views (which were celebrated in the 1970s), while giving less attention to the extraordinary complexity of his career.

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.

The North Star

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.”

Blake: or

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.

Major Works

  • 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)
May 6, 1812
Martin Robison Delany is born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Martin R. Delany journeys 160 miles on foot from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, where he studies Latin, Greek, classics, and medicine while apprenticing with an abolitionist doctor.
Martin R. Delany tours Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, observing slave life.
Martin R. Delany founds and edits the Mystery, a black newspaper.
Martin R. Delany co-edits the North Star with Frederick Douglass.
Martin R. Delany enrolls at Harvard University, where he and two others become the first African Americans accepted to Harvard Medical School. Protests from white students force Delany's withdrawal after a only a few weeks.
Martin R. Delany writes his manifesto The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, calling for emigration of blacks from the United States to Central America. It is viewed as a decisive break with mainstream abolitionism.
Martin R. Delany moves to Canada with his wife, Catherine, and their children.
Martin R. Delany's novel Blake; or, The Huts of America is published in serial form in the Anglo-African Magazine and Weekly Anglo-African.
After meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, Martin R. Delany is commissioned a major and becomes the U.S. Army's first black field officer.
Martin R. Delany runs as an independent Republican for South Carolina lieutenant governor but loses the election to Richard Howell Gleaves.
January 24, 1885
Martin R. Delany dies in Ohio.
  • Adeleke, Tunde. Without Regard to Race: The Other Martin Robison Delany. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
  • Delany, Martin Robison. Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader. Edited by Robert S. Levine. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robison Delany, 1812–1885. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
  • Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
APA Citation:
Stanford, Eleanor. Martin R. Delany (1812–1885). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/delany-martin-r-1812-1885.
MLA Citation:
Stanford, Eleanor. "Martin R. Delany (1812–1885)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 09
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