In Pittsburgh, Delany began his efforts to advance the condition of African Americans. Between 1843 and 1847 he developed a black-nationalist perspective in the columns of his weekly newspaper, the Mystery. He called for the creation of separate black institutions and advocated black migration beyond the borders of the United States.
Soldier, army officer, Freedmen’s Bureau official. Delany was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), on May 6, 1812, the youngest child of Samuel Delany, an enslaved carpenter, and Patti Peace, a free seamstress. In 1822 Martin’s mother took him and her other four children to live in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Martin’s father followed in 1823 after purchasing his freedom. In 1831 Martin moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended night school and studied medicine, which he practiced intermittently thereafter. He attended Harvard Medical School in 1850, but protests from white students limited his attendance to a single term. Delany married Catherine Richards on March 15, 1843. The couple had seven children who survived infancy.
In Pittsburgh, Delany began his efforts to advance the condition of African Americans. Between 1843 and 1847 he developed a black-nationalist perspective in the columns of his weekly newspaper, the Mystery. He called for the creation of separate black institutions and advocated black migration beyond the borders of the United States. From December 1847 to June 1849 he coedited the Rochester, New York, North Star with Frederick Douglass, although the two men had quite different views concerning the future of African Americans. During the 1850s Delany advocated both black migration and abolition. In 1856 he moved his family to Canada, and in 1859 he traveled to Africa in hope of establishing an African American colony in Nigeria.
As the Civil War began, Delany continued to promote black colonization in Africa. But following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he turned to recruiting black Union troops. In February 1865 he became the first black major in the U.S. Army. Stationed in South Carolina shortly before the war ended, Delany stayed on to become a Freedmen’s Bureau official on Hilton Head Island. He began as a fierce advocate of the rights of the former slaves and urged them to become self-sufficient. Yet he refused to challenge the property rights of white landowners and accepted the need for year-long labor contracts for black agricultural workers.
Following the termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1868, Delany engaged in South Carolina politics. At first a loyal Republican, he gained appointments in 1870 as the chief agent of the state’s Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, in 1873 as U.S. Customs inspector in Charleston, and in 1875 as a judge in that city. But Ku Klux Klan violence, the failure of former slaves to meet his expectations, and corruption within South Carolina’s Republican-dominated government led him to imagine that reconciliation with the former slave-owners who controlled the state’s Democratic Party might best serve black interests. In 1874 he became a leader in the state’s Independent Republican Party, which appealed mainly to white Democrats. In 1876 he angered many black South Carolinians by supporting Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wade Hampton. Thereafter Delany supported a failed scheme to send black colonists to Liberia. He left South Carolina in 1880 and, though in declining health, sought unsuccessfully to go to Africa. Delany died in Wilberforce, Pennsylvania, on January 24, 1885.
Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robinson Delany,
1812–1885. 1971. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1996. Ullman, Victor. Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism. Boston: Beacon, 1971.