Did you know… Martin Delany?

Did you know… Martin Delaney ((May 6, 1812 – January 24, 1885) ? Doctor, major in the Union Army, newspaperman, advocate of African American rights.

Martin was born free, in what is now part of West Virginia, but Charles Town was in Virginia at the time of his birth, to Pati and Samuel Delaney. According to the law of the day, the status of the children was determined by the status of the mother. Samuel was enslaved, but Pati was free. According to family oral history, his paternal grandfather was of the Gola tribe in Africa, a chieftain captured in war and sold into slavery, from the area now known as Liberia. His maternal grandfather was Mandinka (like Kunta Kinte of Roots), and was a prince in Africa before being captured with his wife and loaded on a slave ship for America. Fortunately, their master took pity on them, and gave them their freedom, so that Pati was born free, and Martin as well.

Someone tried to enslave her children, but in an unheard of move, Pati went to the courthouse with her papers, and argued for their freedom based on her free status. Martin’s Mandinka grandfather returned to Africa, but Pati stayed. She learned to read and write, despite laws to the contrary, and taught her boys as well. When someone discovered her hidden copy of The New York Primer and Spelling Book, bought from an itinerant peddler, she and the boys fled North to Pennsylvania. In Chambersburg, Martin enrolled in a colored school, and furthered his education. His father Samuel had to be left behind, but within a year, by hard work and saving, the family gathered enough to purchase his freedom, and he joined them.

Martin left home at nineteen, and went to Pittsburgh. He read everything he could get his hands on, borrowing books and teaching himself. In the daytime he worked as a laborer, and at night by the light of a coal oil lamp, he studied. In a bold move reminiscent of his mother, Martin applied to Harvard Medical School – and was accepted! However, when he arrived, he was forced to leave, as other students protested the admission of an African American.

He returned to Pittsburgh, and became heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, which held classes for adults. Martin continued to learn. He gained admission to forward thinking Jefferson College, now known as Washington and Jefferson just outside Pittsburgh. At college, he was able to learn classics, Latin and Greek from Molliston M. Clark. He graduated, and gained an apprenticeship to abolitionist Dr. Andrew McDowell, learning medicine from him and his colleagues. He began practicing medicine on his own for colored clients.

In 1843, he founded a black oriented newspaper, The Mystery, covering news and events from a black perspective. Articles were often reprinted in William Garrison’s “The Liberator”. Martin met and married Catherine Richards about this time, with whom he had eleven children.

The newspaper got him in trouble, when he wrote an article accusing another black man of being a slave catcher, turning runaways into the authorities for money. Martin may have been correct, but when sued for libel, the court ruled against him, fining him the huge sum of $650. Martin’s white supporters banded together and paid the fine.

Martin went on to start the newspaper North Star with Frederick Douglass and William Garrison. Martin served as roving reporter, while Douglass managed and wrote the publication. In July 1848, Delany reported in the North Star that U.S. District Court Justice John McLean had instructed the jury in the Crosswait trial to consider it a punishable offense for a citizen to thwart those trying to “repossess” an alleged runaway slave. His coverage influenced the abolitionist Salmon P. Chase to lead a successful drive to remove McLean as a candidate of the Free Soil Party for the Presidency later that summer.

Martin always considered Africa really his home, given his heritage. He wanted to start a new African American settlement in Africa, taking free and escaped slaves back to their origins. However, during the Civil War, after the ruling in 1863 that allowed blacks to fight in the Union army, Martin abandoned his dream, and began recruiting black troops, as the most effective method to gain freedom for the largest number of black people.

Martin tirelessly went about writing and speaking, encouraging free blacks to fight for the freedom of their brethren in chains. He is credited with raising thousands of colored troops. In 1865, he was granted an audience with Abraham Lincoln. In spite of his friend Douglass having already tried and failed, Marti so impressed Lincoln that he won his request to form a black officer’s corps. Martin Delaney was commissioned a major in the Union Army, in February 1865, becoming the first black line field officer in the U.S. Army and achieving the highest rank an African American would reach during the Civil War.

Following the war, Martin remained active in politics, fighting for land rights for colored soldiers and freed slaves. He ran for political office, mostly unsuccessfully, served as a judge for a time, and continued practicing medicine. Frustrated with Jim Crow and the suppression of African American voting, he tried to raise money for a ship and an African colony, reviving his dream, but had to give it up. On January 24, 1885, he died of tuberculosis in Wilberforce, Ohio.

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