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Martin Delany

Pittsburgh's Renaissance Man

Martin Delany is an unsung hero of Pittsburgh who is honored in the “The Point of Pittsburgh” book by Charles McCollester and album by Mike Stout.  Delany was an  abolitionist leader who fought for the end of slavery and for equal rights for African Americans.  Overcoming oppressive discrimination Martin Delany became a man of many important accomplishments in many fields of endeavor.  Delany was a true "Renaissance man" of many talents.  He was a physician, a national abolitionist leader, author, newspaper publisher, orator, a school principal, judge, explorer, politician, a founder of several societies, the first black American novelist, the first advocate of Black Nationalism and the first commissioned black officer in the U.S. Army. 

Martin Delany by Mike Stout

Escape to Educational Freedom

Martin Robinson Delany was born May 6, 1812 in Charles Town Virginia. He was the descent of four grandparents who had been captured in Africa and enslaved in America. His maternal grandparents Shango and Graci Peace were granted freedom and begot Martin’s mother Pati who was born a free woman. Martin’s father Samuel Delany was born in slavery. Pati fended off attempts to enslave young Martin and her other children by proving her own free birth in court.

Virginia prohibited the education of all African American people. Martin was barred from attending the local whites-only school.  But he sat outside the school to ease dropping on the lessons.  Defying the unjust law the Delany children learned to read and write using the “New York Primer and Spelling Book” that was given to them by a peddler. The Charles Town constable ordered Pati Delany to appear in circuit court to be tried for teaching her children to read. He confiscated the primer and the family bible.  Pati and her children fled to Chambersburg, Pa to avoid arrest and to live in a state that allowed African Americans the right to an education. Samuel Delany sold Graci’s Peace’s property to buy his freedom and joined his family in Chamberburg.

Physician and Leader in Pittsburgh

To continue his education and make his own way in life Martin Delany at age 19 on July 29, 1831 left on a 130 mile walk over the Allegheny Mountains from Chambersburg to Pittsburgh.  There were 450 free African Americans in Pittsburgh when Martin Delany arrived.  Spending his next 25 years in Pittsburgh Delany became an educated man, a skilled writer, physician and a leader.  On his arrival Martin meet African American barbershop owner John Vashon who invited the teen to lodge with his family.  He trained Martin helping him to find work as a barber.   In the evenings Martin became a pupil at a new school for African Americans founded by Rev. Lewis Woodson of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Mr. Woodson, who would go on to found Wilberforce University, was a advocate for black economic independence and helped slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.   

With Woodson Vashon and others Delany founded several societies including the African American Education Society, Theban Literary Society and the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society all by 1832.  Martin went on to study Latin and Greek at Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson College) in Washington, Pa.  Delany worked as the principal of an African American school for a short time before he became a physician.

Martin began his medical education in 1833 studying with several doctors.  During the cholera epidemic of 1833 Delany apprenticed to Dr. Andrew N. McDowell.  He continued his medical studies under Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne and Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam.   Martin established his own medical practice in Pittsburgh in 1836.

In 1843 Martin Delany married seamstress Catherine A. Richards, the daughter of a successful African American butcher and an Irish American mother. Together Martin and Catherine had eleven children, seven of whom survived into adulthood.

Delany Founds The Mystery Newspaper

Through his friendship with Rev. Woodson Martin Delany became involved in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.   In September of 1843 Delany founded the first African American owned newspaper west of the Alleghenies “ The Mystery”.  Its defiant masthead declared:  “Hereditary bondsmen! Know yet not who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow!"  The Mystery’s articles, which publicized grievances of blacks and championed women's rights, were reprinted across the country in other newspapers including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's “The Liberator”.  The Mystery had a circulation of 1000 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.  It was published until 1847 when Delany combined his publishing efforts with those of Fredrick Douglas.

Delany and Fredrick Douglas Found the North Star Newspaper

On an anti-slavery tour in 1847 Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison visited Pittsburgh where they met Martin Delany.  Sharing the common goal of abolishing slavery Delany and Fredrick Douglas joined forces to found the national abolitionist newspaper the North Star.  Delany toured the country through 1849 reporting for the North Star and lecturing for abolition.  On his western tour of  Ohio and Michigan Delany recruited newspaper subscribers and wrote a series of travelogue articles for the The North Star. In several towns Delany confronted hostile pro-slavery mobs.

Martin Delany Protests the Fugitive Slave Act

The passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slaw Law, which required authorities in the free states to return runaway slaves, drove many Pittsburghers to acts of resistance.  Over 1000 African American Pittsburghers fled to Canada in fear of the unjust law.  A massive protest meeting was held in the Allegheny City market-house on September 30th, 1850.  Martin Delany spoke to the crowd and declared his intention to resist the Fugitive Slave Law: 

"My house is my castle; in that castle are none but my wife and children, as free as the angles of heavens, whose liberty is as sacred as the pillars of God.  If any man approaches that house in search of a slave…and I do not lay him a lifeless corpse at my feet, I hope the grave may refuse my body a resting place and righteous Heaven my spirit a home. On No! He cannot enter my house and we both live."

Thwarted by Racism at Harvard Medical School

With recommendation letters from 17 Pittsburgh doctors, Delany was admitted to Harvard University to study medicine in the Fall of 1850. Delany along with two others were the first African Americans to be admitted to Harvard Medical.  In response to the hostile protests of white students who refused to be educated alongside of blacks Harvard dismissed Delany and the two other African American students after only three weeks of study.  Martin returned to Pittsburgh.

Delany becomes "Father of Black Nationalism

The discrimination that forced Delany out of Harvard convinced Delany that the white ruling class would not allow deserving African Americans equal access to education and leadership.  Delany took up the cause of Black Nationalism publishing his first book “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered”.  In it he urged African Americans to immigrate to Africa to found a new nation where they would be free from racism.  With his book and his speeches he became known as the "Father of Black Nationalism".  

Lone Doctor to Fight Cholera in Pittsburgh

A second cholera epidemic rapidly swept through Pittsburgh in September of 1854. Forty-six people died suddenly in the first four days. Unable to control the epidemic most doctors fled Pittsburgh.  Martin Delany courageously stayed behind working with a small group of African American nurses to care for the victims.  The epidemic lasted a month killing over 800 Pittsburghers.

Exile From America

Disillusion by the oppressive conditions in the United States, Delany moved to Canada in 1856 to where he continued his medical practice. In 1859 Delany took a nine month journey to Liberia to explore the possibility of creating of a new black nation. He signed an agreement with chiefs in the Abeokuta region that would allow African American settlers to live on unused land. Returning to America in 1860 he began planning the settlement of Abeokuta seeking passengers and funding.

Delany Publishes First Novel by an African American

Delany in 1859 became the first African American to publish a novel in the United States. His book “Blake: Or the Huts of America” was serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine from January to July 1859 and in the Weekly Anglo African Magazine from 1861 to 1862. It was based on his travels in 1839 down the Mississippi to Louisiana and Texas. 

Delany Become First Commissioned African American Army Officer

After the outbreak of the Civil War Delany decided to return to the United States to work for the emancipation of slaves.  The Fugitive Slave Law was ended and the emancipation proclamation was declared on January 1, 1863
.  Martin moved his family to the all black community of Wilberforce, Ohio in 1863.  Delany later in 1863 traveled the Northeast recruiting thousand of black enlistees to Union army's United States Colored Troops. The Color Troops were led by white officers.  Delany met with President Lincoln in February of 1865 to propose a corps of black men led by black officers.  He told Lincoln that a black led army would win over Southern blacks.  Lincoln impressed by Delany, described him as "a most extraordinary and intelligent man" and recommended his immediate commission as a major.  Delany became the first black field officer in the U.S. Army. Delany was assigned to Hilton Head Island, S.C. to recruit and organize former slaves for the Union Army. 

South Carolina Politician and Judge

When peace came in April of 1865 Delany became an customhouse inspector in the Freedmen's Bureau.  In 1874 he ran for lieutenant governor of South Carolina narrowly missing election. He was appointed a judgeship in Charleston by the governor in 1876.  Delany returned to his medical practice in 1879 when racist white politicians removed all African Americans from South Carolina offices.  In 1879 Delany published his third book "Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color" in which documented the contributions Africans to civilization.  

Liberian Exodus

In the 1870s the gains of the Reconstruction era were erased as white supremacist groups such as the Red Shirts suppressed African American voting in South Carolina.  White segregationist politicians took control.  Delany was forced out o of his judgeship. In reaction to voter suppression and segregationist policies, Charleston's African Americans sought to emigrate to Africa. They formed the 'Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company' in 1877 and made  Delany chairman of the finance committee. A ship, the Azor, was purchased for the voyage to Africa. Delany planned to make the voyage.  But Delany decided to stay in America to put his children threw college. Delany was the Azor sail to Africa in 1880. 

Final Years in Ohio

Martin Delany moved in 1884 to Wilberfoce, Ohio near Dayton  Two of his children were students at Wilberforce College that was founded by Delany's mentor Reverend Woodson.  As his children needed tuition money Delany resumed his medical practice and his wife worked as a seamstress.  Delany also became a member of the Wilberforce College Faculty.  He died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio on January 24, 1885. Delany left his papers to Wilberforce College.