Authors: Martin Robison Delany

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist and novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, 1852

Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, 1861

Long Fiction:

Blake: Or, The Huts of America, 1859 (partially published); 1970 (complete edition)

Miscellaneous:

The Mystery, 1843-1847 (newspaper; publisher)

North Star, 1847-1849 (newspaper; coeditor with Frederick Douglass)

Biography

During a very full life, Martin Robison Delany was a journalist, physician, lecturer, explorer, ethnologist, army officer, civil servant, trial judge, novelist, and organizer of emigration projects. Among his African American contemporaries, only the celebrated Frederick Douglass approached such creative activity.{$I[AN]9810001960}{$I[A]Delany, Martin Robison}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Delany, Martin Robison}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Delany, Martin Robison}{$I[tim]1812;Delany, Martin Robison}

The period from 1830 to 1865 was the great age of antislavery agitation in the United States and the first great age of African American writing. In both these movements, Delany was a moving force, working with Douglass, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, Harriet Tubman, James McCune Smith, James W. C. Pennington, and Samuel Ringgold Ward. His contributions are less well known than some of his fellow workers, perhaps because they are spread among so many fields of endeavor.

Delany was born to free parents in 1812 in Charles Town, in what was then Virginia. His schooling began at age ten when his family moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and continued in New York at the African Free School and then the Oneida Institute. Always bright, curious, and of academic bent, he was married and an active journalist by the time he entered the Medical School of Harvard–in what was to Harvard merely an experiment but was to him one of the formative experiences of his life.

From 1843 to 1847, Delany successfully published the newspaper The Mystery in Pittsburgh; thereafter, it was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Under the name The Christian Recorder, the newspaper is still published today. From 1847 to 1849, he was assistant and contributor to Douglass’s North Star, though he never moved to Rochester, New York, where the newspaper was edited. One reason he wished to stay in Pittsburgh was that during the later 1840’s, he was reading medicine there, in the manner of an apprentice, with two prominent physicians in preparation for medical school. Rebuffed by several schools in Pennsylvania and New York, he decided to try Harvard, whose dean was Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the later Supreme Court justice.

Spurred by Holmes, the medical faculty decided to perform an experiment. Provisionally, it admitted Delany (now approaching forty), two other black men (who intended to practice in Liberia), and a white woman. All did well in their studies, but within a month the white male students protested that the value of their degrees would be diminished if blacks and women could also obtain them. Allowed to finish the term, all the “experimental” students were then expelled, with no outcry from the abolitionist press. Although no one would ever question his right to practice medicine, even without a diploma, Delany had learned a valuable lesson.

First fruit of that education was The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered. Published in 1852, it was the most sophisticated study of the black situation published before the Civil War. In language always clear and often eloquent, Delany examines the conditions of slaves and free blacks alike and the self-serving responses of white authorities to their plight. His marshaling of history and contemporary fact is strikingly modern. His recommendation of emigration to Central and South America is a foretaste of twentieth century black nationalism. He wrote, “Every people should be the originators of their own destiny, the projectors of their own schemes, and the creators of the events that lead to their destiny.”

With the reputation for learning brought by this volume, Delany was in heavy demand for the remainder of the 1850’s. As a physician, he practiced in Chicago, Canada, and Pennsylvania and was especially valuable in the fight against an epidemic of cholera in Philadelphia. As a proponent of black emigration, he traveled widely and helped to organize the National Emigration Convention of Colored Men in 1854 and the later expedition to Nigeria to explore its feasibility. From that trip came, in 1861, the volume Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party.

Traveling extensively in Europe, Africa, and Canada, Delany was valued as a speaker and a scholar. He published essays in politics, ethnology, botany, and what would now be called sociology, all informed by wide learning and experience. In the initial (January, 1859) issue of The Anglo-African Magazine, a monthly published in New York, appeared the opening chapters of his only novel, Blake: Or, The Huts of America. Further chapters were serialized for the next six months, but the novel was not released in toto until a modern edition in 1970. One of the earliest African American novels, it was synopsized in that first issue:

The scene is laid in Mississippi, the plot extending into Cuba; the hero being an educated West India Black, who deprived of his liberty by fraud while young and brought to the United States, in mature age, at the instance of his wife being sold from him, sought revenge through the medium of a deep laid secret organization.

During the Civil War, Delany had the distinction of being the first black man to be given field officer’s rank by President Abraham Lincoln. As major, he was a surgeon in the Union army; he also recruited two regiments of former slaves around Charleston, South Carolina, before the end of the war. When it was over, he remained in the state to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau, to serve as justice of the peace, and to stand for election as lieutenant governor.

Frederick Douglass once said of Delany that “when I, Fred Douglass, pray, I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks God for making him a black man.” The statement stands as both a tribute and an explanation of Delany’s modernity.

BibliographyBell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Delaney is one of many novelists given close readings in this survey study.Ellison, Curtis W., and E. W. Metcalf, Jr. William Wells Brown and Martin R. Delany: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A useful guide for further research.Griffith, Cyril E. The American Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. Analyzes Delaney’s philosophical influence.Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Explores the complex relationship between Delaney and Douglass, emphasizing similarities as well as differences. Draws on generally overlooked sources such as black newspapers, lectures, and letters.Rollin, Frank A. Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany: Sub-assistant Commissioner Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and of Abandoned Lands, and Late Major 104th U.S. Colored Troops. 1868. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1969. A contemporary biography.Sterling, Dorothy. The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robison Delany, 1812-1885. 1971. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. A biography written at the time of the emergence of African American studies.Ullman, Victor. Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. Traces Delaney’s influence on the Black Nationalist movement.
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