Opinion Celebrates Black History Month: Martin Delany

RedState has highlighted many noteworthy people so far during February’s Black History Month, like singer Billie Holiday, ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields, entertainer Korla Pandit, actor/comedian Bill Cosby, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers (you can find the full list here).

Martin Robison Delany’s remarkable and inspiring life is another example of a person we can learn from. Martin Robison Delany was, among others, the first Black field commander in the U.S. Army.

This was a shining example of someone who didn’t give up in his quest for better living conditions for himself and others.

But that pursuit began with his own quest… to be allowed to get an education at all. You see, his mother was free but his father was a slave, and where he was born on May 6, 1812 and grew up — Charles Town, Virginia (which would later become part of West Virginia) — families like his teaching their children to read and write wasn’t exactly legal. So, Delany’s mother took the brood to Pennsylvania.

He decided that he would walk the 130-mile journey to Pittsburgh, despite not having a college education, after settling in a small community. Civil War Pittsburgh continues this story.

His experiences in the bustling city at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers helped shape Delany’s voice within the abolitionist community, including Delany’s founding of The Mystery – The first newspaper operated by African Americans west of the Allegheny Mountains. This, of course, preceded Delany’s work with Frederick Douglass on the North StarIt was 1847.

Delany’s lifelong struggle for abolition and activism began in Pittsburgh.

The following video is a compilation of the Pittsburgh Post-GazettePoints out

“He was a dreamer. He dreamed big and was so close to fulfilling that dream. He was close to achieving his dream, but it was too late.


Martin submitted his application to Harvard Medical College in 1850. He was 38 years old, with an impressive list of accomplishments.”


Along with two students, he was the first Black person to be admitted to the school. He was however forced to quit by a group white students during his first semester.

However, his dreams of becoming a physician were only temporarily crushed. Later, he was able to work as an apprentice for doctors.

Turning to his writing, some of Delany’s lyrical prose is captured in this brief reading from his journals, which was culled from traveling across the country, including to Canada. (In the video at the end of this article, you’ll hear an actor playing Abraham Lincoln refer to Delany as being Canadian. It’s possible he gained citizenship there, at one point.)

One reason he explored was due to a massive slave rebellion in Cuba that had occurred in 1840s. Because he believed that Black Americans would not be accepted in America as equals, he set out to inspire people to create a nation that would.

My fascination with his fiction-writing is one aspect of his writing. He wrote a novel about a fictional slave insurrection, “Blake; or the Huts of America.”

The book’s real-life origins were described by the Encyclopedia Virginia

Blake responds specifically to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal for any free person living in a free or slave state to aid an Escaped slave looking for freedom, and to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which stripped all blacks living in the United States—enslaved and free—of any citizenship rights.

The statement added that he had also been inspired by the Cuban slave rebellions of previous decades. In BlakeDelany seems to have wanted to tell a story, to write a myth. He wrote the story, and it was published serially in 1859-1861 weekly magazines. Later, he attempted to publish it in book format. However, he was unsuccessful in finding a publisher. The novel was incomplete, and six of its serials had been lost. A fragment of the book was then published in 1970.

Delany was still not satisfied with the research he did in his hemisphere for Black people living free. To find a place for Black people to live freely, Delany set out to Africa. He returned to the U.S. after the Civil War ended and helped recruit Black soldiers. It’s thought that he convinced thousands to sign-up to fight for their freedom on the Union side.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This freed all slaves from the rebellion states and any other area in the South under Union control. It seems Lincoln was aware of the ambitious Pittsburgh man and his efforts. He met Delany. Soon afterwards, Delany was commissioned a Major — making him the highest-ranking Black soldier up to that point in the Army.

I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Delany than this.

According to the inscription on a historical marker in Jefferson County, West Virginia, here’s what Lincoln did on February 8, 1865, just after that remarkable, face to face meeting:

Delany and President Abraham Lincoln met during the Civil War. Delany shared with President Lincoln his idea to train black troops under the command of black officers and to move south to fight. The plan was approved by Lincoln and Stanton received a letter advising Stanton of his intention to meet Delany.

“Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.”
A. Lincoln

After the war, he returned to South Carolina and taught former slaves self-sufficiency.

Later on, as this entry from the Biography Channel website on Delany shows, he started to dip his toe into electoral politics…as a Republican:

Delany was a candidate for the presidency after the war. A quasi-biography, written pseudonymously by a female journalist under the name Frank A. Rollin—Martin R. Delany – Life and Services (1868)—was a stepping stone to serving on the Republican State Executive Committee and running for lieutenant governor of South Carolina.

The entry added that though he never ended up getting elected to an office, “he was appointed a trial judge.”

Although his politics were sometimes radical, his efforts to find a Black homeland was a significant milestone in the history and development of black nationalism. Perhaps it’s not surprising that in his own time, he was considered as something of a pariah, even among his fellow abolitionists. But when someone ekes out a trail to freedom in other ways for thousands of people, it’s worth side-stepping some aspect of their personal politics. Some things are just not possible. GreaterMore than politics.

And though we can’t know exactly what happened in the meeting between Delany and Lincoln, you’d have to think it might have been something like this excellent reenactment below, via the History’s Flipside YouTube channel.

One line from it that especially rings true is the one about why he was so passionate about the idea of raising “40,000” new recruits to march through the South — commanded by Black commanders. This was his way of overcoming something that he personally felt affected by, the ban on Blacks learning to read or write. Many, as the actor portraying Delany points out the Lincoln actor. weren’t able to readHis Emancipation Proclamation.


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