Martin Robison Delany was born a free African American on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) to Samuel and Pati Delany. Although his father was a slave, his mother was free, and Virginia state law stated that the status of mother determined the status of children—therefore, a slave mother resulted in the children being slaves and vice versa. Delany and his siblings were taught how to read and write as children even though Virginia state law prohibited African Americans from receiving any education. However, in September 1822, their mother was forced to move with them to Pennsylvania when their father's owner discovered that they could read. Luckily, their father was able to purchase his own freedom a year later, and the family moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
In childhood, Delany continued his education, but was also forced to work to help his family. In 1831, he moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended Jefferson College. During an outbreak of cholera in 1833, Delany apprenticed to a physician. His training in medicine continued as he served apprenticeships to three other physicians who were willing to accept him. Delany became involved in politics and supported the temperance movement, the underground railroad for escaped slaves, and the notion of returning freed African Americans to Africa. In 1843, after marrying into a wealthy African American family, he founded a newspaper, The Mystery, which focused on African American issues. Delany also later worked with Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison on their newspaper, The North Star.
In 1850, Delany applied to several medical schools in order to formalize the medical training he had received as an apprentice. After many rejections, he was accepted by Harvard Medical School as one of the first three African Americans to be admitted. Unfortunately, after attending for only a month, a large group of white students wrote a petition to the school's faculty asking for the removal of the African American students. After three weeks of deliberations, Delany and the other two African American students were expelled. Despite his expulsion, he continued to work as a physician for the African American community in Pittsburgh.
His expulsion from Harvard marked a turning point for Delany. From that point onward, he was convinced that African Americans could never receive fair treatment from whites in America. In 1852, Delany published a book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered, which laid out his beliefs regarding the future of African Americans in the United States. In 1859, after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, he published a book of fiction that he believed more accurately depicted the treatment of African Americans in the South. The book, Blake: Or The Huts of America, was the first novel written by an African American man to be published in the United States.
In August 1854, Delany was the leader of the National Emigration Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio, which was considered the foundation of the black nationalist movement. Not until 1859, however, was he able to travel to Liberia, Africa, to further the idea of African American emigration. After almost a year of exploration, Delany believed that he had secured enough land to start the emigration process, but when he decided not to emigrate himself in 1861, the emigration movement largely fell apart.
During the Civil War, Delany supported the recruitment of African Americans to serve in the Union Army and personally recruited thousands. In early 1865, he met with President Abraham Lincoln and so impressed him that Delany was commissioned a major in the U.S. Colored Troops. His commission made him the highest-ranking African American of the war and the first African American line officer to achieve a field-grade rank. Delany remained in the army after the war, serving in the 52nd Regiment, U.S.C.T. After service in the Freedman's Bureau, he resigned from the Army in August 1865.
During Reconstruction, Delany was politically active in South Carolina, but was never elected to political office. In 1875, while serving as judge, he was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for “defrauding a church.” Following the racially motivated trial, the Republican governor pardoned Delany, but refused to reappoint him as a judge. In that year's election, Delany shifted his political support to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Wade Hampton, who then won. Though he was reappointed a judge by Hampton, the political situation for African Americans grew worse after the 1876 presidential election led to the end of Reconstruction. Delany was replaced as a judge by a white Democrat in 1877.
Since the situation for African Americans again appeared bleak, Delany returned to the emigration movement. In 1877, he was the chairman of a group of African Americans who formed the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. In 1880, however, he withdrew from the organization in order to focus on his family. With two children at Wilberforce College in Ohio, Delaney resumed his medical practice to help pay the bills. He died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio, on January 24, 1885.
See also African American—Civil War; Beaty, Powhatan; Carney, William H.; Fleetwood, Christian A.; Smith, Andrew J.; United States Colored Troops.
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