Martin Delany is probably the most recognized name in the abolition movement in
Pittsburgh. He was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now part of West Virginia) the son of a slave and reportedly the grandson of a Prince, his grandparents were taken by slave traders and sold into slavery in the American colonies. Reports from some who researched his family history say, all of his grandparents had been brought over from Africa to be slaves, but his father’s father was by some accounts a village chieftain, and his mother’s father a Mandingo prince. Delany’s mother earned her freedom and worked as a seamstress in Virginia, his father was an enslaved carpenter. Denay’s mother Pati was determined to educate her five children so she taught the children in secret. When a local sheriff found out that Pati had been educating her African-American children, Pati chose to take the children and flee Virginia where educating African-Americans was illegal. The family settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where Pati could teach her children without fear of prosecution in a free-state. Delany’s father, Samuel was able to purchase his freedom a year after the family had moved to Pennsylvania. Delany continued his education in Pennsylvania, alternating with work to help support his family.
When Martin Delany was 19 years old, he walked from Chambersburg,
Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh (160 miles) seeking education. While in Pittsburgh, Delany became an active member of the Vigilance Committee, helping runaway slaves on their way to freedom. He also joined the integrated militia which protected African- Americans from white mobs that would roam about intimidating former slaves. He was welcomed into the home of John Vashon, a noted Pittsburgh Abolitionist and began his education at the African Education Society School. At the school, he met Reverend Lewis Woodson, who would take Delany under his wing and encouraged Delany’s movement towards Black Nationalism. While attending school, Delaney established the Theban Literary Society, the group was established for young African-American men to study and debate topics. With his education, Delaney had the desire to become a doctor. Delaney began to learn and practice medicine under the training of Dr. Joseph Gazzam and Dr. Francis LeMoyne.
After receiving a great deal of training from these two white abolitionist doctors, Delaney was accepted to Harvard Medical School, however, protests over his race by white students ended this opportunity quickly and Delany returned to Pittsburgh. Upon his return to Pittsburgh, Delany began producing a weekly abolitionist newspaper called The Mystery. It was the first abolitionist paper to be produced west of the Allegheny Mountains. After he reported on the Pittsburgh fire of 1845, Delany was sued for libel by an African American named Fiddler Johnson. Delany was found guilty of libel after reporting that Johnson was implicit in helping slave catchers in Pittsburgh. Delany’s colleagues in the abolitionist community and journalism profession helped pay the fine of $650, but the resulting damage meant Delany had to sell The Mystery sheet to the African Methodist Episcopal Church where it was published as the Christian Recorder. Shortly thereafter, Delany began to write for The North Star an Abolitionist Newspaper produced by Frederick Douglas. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Delany began to spearhead a Black Nationalist Movement to seek out a new land for free former slaves to live and start a new life. This movement held a convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 1851 with 106 delegates from 11 states. In 1859, Delaney and others surveyed land from West Africa through the Niger Delta to find a suitable place to establish a new place for free blacks to emigrate. other than his newspaper reporting with the North Star, Delany also published several books including; The Origin and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry; Its Introduction into the United States and Legitimacy Among Colored Men and The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered which explored the topic of African-Americans returning to Africa.
Once the Civil War broke out, Delany had a renewed hope that all slaves would be freed. The United States Department of War issued General Order #143 on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops. Its purpose was to recruit colored soldiers to provide the Union Army with much needed additional manpower and to meet the demands of those who felt African Americans deserved the chance to fight in the Civil War. Delany enlisted in the U.S. Army, he was immediately promoted to the rank of Major and assigned to recruitment of African-American soldiers. Delany became the first African-American officer commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln and the highest ranking African-American officer in the Union Army. The Emancipation Proclamation gave Delany hope that emigration might not be necessary, and he became active in promoting the use of African Americans in the Union Army .
In February 1865, Martin Delany met with President Abraham Lincoln at the Executive Mansion (Personal quarters of the White House). He proposed to the President to increase the number of African- American officers, especially in charge of African-American soldiers. Delany recognized that it was too early for an integrated Union Army, however, he proposed that “Colored Troops should be managed by colored officers”, much like the Irish Brigades and Zouave units had been commanded by people of their nationality. The president was agreeable and quite impressed by Delany, The president gave Delany letters to meet with Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton to further discuss increasing the numbers of U.S. Colored Troops and African-American officers to run those units. At the end of Delany and Lincoln’s meeting, the cannons in the capitol began firing in celebration. Union Troops had taken Charleston, SC. Lincoln’s letter to Stanton said:
“Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.”
After the war was over, Delany went to work for the Freedman’s Bureau, assuring adequate housing and working conditions for newly freed slaves. There he called for black pride, the enforcement of black civil rights and land for the freedpeople. Delany became active in local Republican politics, losing a close election for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina but later serving briefly as a judge in Charleston, South Carolina. After failures in African-American voting rights and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the reconstruction South, Delany again became a proponent of African-American emigration.
Martin Delany died of tuberculosis on January 24, 1885, in Wilberforce, Ohio. He became an inspiration for Civil Rights icons in the United States including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. His writings are still studied in many colleges in universities today.