African American intellectual Martin Robinson Delany (1812-1885), a journalist, physician, army officer, politician, and judge, is best known for his promotion before the Civil War of a national home in Africa for African Americans.
Martin Delany was born free in Charlestown, Va., on May 6, 1812. His parents traced their ancestry to West African royalty. In 1822 the family moved to Chambersburg, Pa., to find a better racial climate. At the age of 19 Martin attended an African American school in Pittsburgh. He married Kate Richards there in 1843; they had 11 children.
In 1843 Delany founded one of the earliest African American newspapers, the Mystery, devoted particularly to the abolition of slavery. Proud of his African ancestry, Delany advocated unrestricted equality for African Americans, and he participated in conventions to protest slavery. Frederick Douglass, the leading African American abolitionist, made him coeditor of his newspaper, the North Star, in 1847. But Delany left in 1849 to study medicine at Harvard.
At the age of 40 Delany began the practice of medicine, which he would continue on and off for the rest of his life. But with the publication of his book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852; repr. 1968), he began to agitate for a separate nation, trying to get African Americans to settle outside the United States, possibly in Africa, but more probably in Canada or Latin America. In 1854 he led a National Emigration Convention. For a time he lived in Ontario. Despite his bitter opposition to the American Colonization Society and its colony, Liberia, Delany kept open the possibility of settling elsewhere in Africa. His 1859-1860 visit to the country of the Yorubas (now part of Nigeria) to negotiate with local kings for settling African Americans there is summarized in The Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861; repr. 1969).
When Delany returned to the United States, however, the Civil War was in progress and prospects of freedom for African Americans were brighter. He got President Abraham Lincoln to appoint him as a major in the infantry in charge of recruiting all-African American Union units.
After the war Delany went to South Carolina to participate in the Reconstruction. In the Freedmen's Bureau and as a Republican politican, he was influential among the state's population, regardless of race. In 1874 he narrowly missed election as lieutenant governor. In 1876, as the Republicans began losing control of the state, Delany switched to the conservative Democrats. Newly elected governor Wade Hampton rewarded him with an important judgeship in Charleston. As a judge, Delany won the respect of people of all races. In 1878 he helped sponsor the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Steamship Company, which sent one ill-fated emigration ship to Africa. The next year his The Principia of Ethnology argued for pride and purity of the races and for Africa's self-regeneration.
When his political base collapsed in 1879, Delany returned to practicing medicine and later became a businessman in Boston. He died on Jan. 24, 1885.
Further Reading on Martin Robinson Delany
A recent biography of Delany is Victor Ullman, Martin R. Delany:The Beginnings of Black Nationalism (1971). A contemporary account is Frank A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany (1868; repr. 1969). William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968), includes a biographical sketch. For the significance of Delany's black nationalist thought before the Civil War see Howard H. Bell, A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement 1830-1861 (1970).