During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.
Born: May 6, 1812, Charles Town, Va.
Died: Jan. 24, 1885, Xenia, Ohio
Known best for: his opposition to slavery and creation of the Mystery, a newspaper that published the struggles of U.S. Blacks and championed women’s rights. Delany also worked on Frederick Douglass’ The North Star, an abolitionist publication in Rochester, New York.
Martin Delany was ahead of his time when it came to his militant anti-slavery stance and Black nationalism. He was born free in antebellum Charles Town, Virginia (now in West Virginia). Delany’s father, Samuel was a slave, but his mother, Pati, won her freedom and worked as a seamstress. Delany’s grandparents had been brought from Africa as slaves, but Delany’s family claimed that his father’s father was a village chieftain and his mother’s father was a Mandingo prince. It may have been her ancestry that won Pati — and therefore her children — freedom.
Pati moved her family north to Pennsylvania in search of education for her children. Delany spent his nights studying at an African American church, the Bethel Church, and Jefferson College in Pittsburgh. There, he studied Latin, Greek and classics and also apprenticed with several abolitionist doctors. He achieved competence as a doctor’s assistant and in dental care, and worked in these fields in the South and Southwest during young adulthood.
Later, he returned to Pittsburgh and started a weekly newspaper, the Mystery. The paper published the grievances of Blacks in the U.S. and also advocated for women’s rights. Some of these articles were so popular that they were reprinted in the white press. In his time in Pittsburgh, Delany was an abolitionist activist. He led the Vigilance Committee, an organization that helped relocate escaped slaves. He also joined a militia to help defend Blacks against white mob attacks.
Delany was forced to sell his paper when he lost a libel suit.
In 1847, Frederick Douglass hired Delany to work on his weekly, the North Star, an abolitionist publication in Rochester, New York. Delany worked there until 1849.
He then became one of the first Black students to be admitted to Harvard Medical School. A white protest forced him out after his first term, so he returned to writing. He published several books, one of which explored the feasibility of Blacks returning to their native Africa. He even traveled to Nigeria to negotiate land for African Americans and also looked into Central America and Canada. In 1856, he moved to Canada to continue his medical practice in protest against the racism in the U.S.
After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Delany refocused his efforts, from finding a homeland for Blacks outside of the U.S., to recruiting Blacks — including his own son — into the Union Army. He recruited and served as a surgeon for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. In 1865, Delany reportedly met with Lincoln to discuss the possibility of African Americans leading African American troops. Delany was later a major in the 104th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops for which he also recruited. He was the highest-ranking Black official at the time.
After the war, Delany ran for lieutenant governor as an Independent Republican in South Carolina but lost. He revisited African American emigration initiatives when the Black vote was suppressed and served as the chairman of the finance committee for the Liberia Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company. In 1879, he published another book, “Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium and Egyptian Civilization, from Years of Careful Examination and Enquiry,” which outlined achievements of Black people to encourage racial pride. He returned to Ohio in 1880 to be with his family and work to send his children to college.
He died of tuberculosis in 1845.
Delany’s legacy is that of a Renaissance man. He brought his fierce abolitionist stance and pride in his race to all fields he worked in.
Frederick Douglass once said of Delany, “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks Him for making him a black man.”