On this day in 1812, Martin Robison Delany was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). “His was a magnificent life,” W. E. B. DuBois once wrote, “and yet, how many of us have heard of him?” That was back in 1936. These days, how many of us have even heard of W. E. B. DuBois?
That said, Delany’s life was indeed epic. Born in Charles Town, where John Brown was hanged, to a family half slave, half free, he was forced to move to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, when his mother was caught illegally teaching him to read. Literacy came in handy, though, because in 1850, Delany became one of the first African Americans accepted to Harvard Medical School. (Protests soon forced him to quit.)
At first Delany was a mainstream abolitionist: peace and patience for all. Then he started advocating colonization and hinting at violence: “Man must be Free!—if not through Law, why then above the Law.” He edited newspapers, wrote a novel, traveled across the South, dabbled in Liberian politics, and, during the Civil War, personally met with President Lincoln, who commissioned him the Union army’s first black field officer. After the war, he ran for lieutenant governor of South Carolina, went to jail for fraud, and practiced medicine.
Still, it was Delany’s militancy, rather than his Whitman-esque multitudes, that got him in good with the Black Panthers. In the 1960s, he became a symbol of Black Power and was, in the words of one historian, “invoked primarily as the dark binary opposite” of folks like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
Nowadays, just as What’s-His-Name predicted, Delany largely has been forgotten. After all, who needs a dark binary opposite when we already have Charlie Sheen?
IMAGE: Martin R. Delany (uncredited lithograph, National Portrait Gallery)