Martin Delany Week Celebrates Father Of Black Nationalism

Martin R. Delany. (Credit: Moonstone Arts Center)

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – This is Martin Delany Week, a time to celebrate an extraordinary African-American, known as the father of Black Nationalism.

Born in 1812, Martin R. Delany was a doctor, newspaper publisher, an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War and an author.

When much of the nineteenth century anti-slavery movement supported deporting freed Blacks back to Africa, Delany, who grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, spoke up, says Larry Robin, founder of Moonstone Art Center.

“He said you can’t tell us what we should do! We decide what we should do. If this country is not going to be a place where we can prosper, then we should leave, but it’s our choice.”

The Moonstone is hosting a number of events this week celebrating Delany’s life, featuring notables such as poet Sonia Sanchez and speaker Molifi Asante.

For more info go to

Excerpts from the Introduction to The Martin Delany Reader

by Robert S. Levine

Martin Robison Delany (1812-85) lived an extraordinarily complex life as a social activist and reformer, black nationalist, abolitionist, physician, reporter and editor, explorer, jurist, realtor, politician, publisher, educator, army officer, ethnographer, novelist, and political and legal theorist. A sketch of his career can only hint at the range of his interests, activities, and accomplishments. Born free in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), the son of a free seamstress and a plantation slave, Delany in the early 1820s was taken by his mother to western Pennsylvania after Virginia authorities threatened to imprison her for teaching her children to read and write. In 1831 he moved to Pittsburgh, where he studied with black leaders, and began his lifelong commitment to projects of black elevation. He organized and attended black conventions during the 1830s and 1840s and during this same period apprenticed as a doctor and began his own medical practice. In 1843, he founded one of the earliest African American newspapers, the Mystery, which he edited until 1847. In late 1847, he left the Mystery and teamed up with Frederick Douglass to coedit the North Star, the most influential African American newspaper of the period. After an approximately eighteen-month stint with Douglass, Delany attended Harvard Medical School for several months but was dismissed because of his color. Outraged by Harvard’s racism and the Compromise of 1850, in 1852 he published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, a book-length critique of the failure of the nation to extend the rights of citizenship to African Americans, and a book that concludes by arguing for black emigration to Central and South America or the Caribbean. Delany’s emigrationism conflicted sharply with Douglass’s integrationist vision of black elevation in the United States. In response to Douglass’s national black convention of 1853, Delany in 1854 organized and chaired a national black emigrationist convention, where he delivered “The Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent,” the most important statement on black emigration published before the Civil War.

In 1856, Delany moved to Canada, where he set up a medical practice, wrote regularly for the Provincial Freeman, and met with the radical abolitionist John Brown to discuss the possibility of fomenting a slave insurrection in the United States. During the late 1850s, his views on emigration underwent a significant change. Instead of advocating black emigration to the southern Americas, he now argued for African American emigration to Africa. By 1859, he had obtained the funds that allowed him to tour the Niger Valley, and in December of that year, he signed a treaty with the Alake (king) of Abeokuta that gave him the land necessary to establish an African American settlement in West Africa. In search of financial support for the project, he toured Great Britain and garnered international attention for his participation at the 1860 International Statistical Congress in London. Around this same time, he published a serialized novel, Blake (1859, 1861-62) in an African American journal. He also published a book-length account of his travels and negotiations in Africa, Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861). Delany’s African project collapsed in the early 1860s and by 1863 he was recruiting black troops for the Union army.

From 1863 to 1877, Delany recommitted himself to the integrationist U.S. nationalistic. He achieved national fame for meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and shortly thereafter receiving a commission as the first black major in the Union army. Following the war, Delany served for three years as an officer at the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, and he remained in South Carolina through the late 1870s as he attempted to make Reconstruction work in a stronghold of the former Confederacy. In 1874, he ran for lieutenant governor of South Carolina on the Independent Republican slate, then turned his attention to helping southern blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia. In 1879, as he was seeking a federal appointment that would allow him to finance his own emigration to Africa, he published Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color (1879), an ethnographic study that, like his earlier Origin and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry (1853), expressed a Pan-African pride in blacks’ historical, cultural, and racial ties to Africa.

as “one of the great men of this age,” a person whose life was “filled with noble purposes, high resolves, and ceaseless activities for the welfare of the race with which he was identified,” and who “has given us the standard of measurement of all the men of our race, past, present, and to come, in the work of negro elevation in the United States of America.”

According to Frances Rollin, who published the first biography of Delany in 1868, Frederick Douglass similarly remarked, “I thank God for making me a man simply; but Delany always thanks him for making him a black man.” When Delany asserted his black pride, and even racial superiority, he did so against the grain of a culture that regarded blackness as a mark of evil and inferiority. Whereas Brown and Douglass declared that they would be happy to see race simply vanish from the United States through intermarriage, Delany from the 1830s until his death in 1885 fought white racists’ denigration of blackness by embracing it. And he did so, again and again, rhetorically: by insisting that within white culture his blackness in effect made an argument about racial identity and character that mulatto leaders, such as Brown and Douglass, simply could not make. The African American educator Anna Julia Cooper underscored this point in her remarks on Delany in 1892: “The late Martin R. Delany, who was an unadulterated black man, used to say when honors of state fell upon him, that when he entered the council of kings the black race entered with him; meaning, I suppose, that there was no discounting his race identity and attributing his achievements to some admixture of Saxon blood.” In this respect, Delany’s race consciousness and pride, his very sense of himself as a representative black man, can be understood as his defiant response to the white racist gaze upon his black body.

gotten until his resurrection as the father of black nationalism and the epitome of proud blackness.” During the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of the Black Arts movement and the upsurge of interest in black studies, Delany was suddenly being celebrated for precisely what Payne, Brown, and Douglass had professed not to like about him: his prideful race consciousness and Pan-African identity.

Although Delany was a prolific writer who was unable to conceive of political action apart from writing and who wrote in a range of genres, most anthologies of American literature fail to reprint any of his multifarious and engaging writings, and, perhaps most astonishing of all, he is not included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, the most widely used anthology in African American literary and cultural studies. This neglect would have left his contemporaries truly mystified….

The historian Sterling Stuckey has argued that what links various expressions of black nationalism in the United States is a consciousness among African Americans “of a shared experience at the hands of white people” and of “the need for black people to rely primarily on themselves in vital areas of life.” Rather than representing a single position—a race consciousness that is always aggressively separatist—black nationalism can embrace a range of sometimes competing and conflicting options—uplift, separatism, emigrationism, patriotism, racial anger, integrationism, and so on—and has to be constructed and reconstructed in response to different exigencies and contexts. Delany’s special genius lay in his ceaseless and imaginative work at such construction and reconstruction.

In an influential revisionary overview of Delany’s career, Paul Gilroy observes, “Delany is a figure of extraordinary complexity whose political trajectory through abolitionisms and emigrationisms, from Republicans to Democrats, dissolves any simple attempts to fix him as consistently either conservative or radical.” …Like Douglass, Delany advocates a politics of racial integrationism when that politics seems possible and useful; at other moments, when that politics seems an impossibility (or destined to keep blacks in a subordinate position), he advocates creative modes of resistance, including separatism.

Delany was committed to action. “We must make an issue, create an event, and establish for ourselves a position,” Delany declared at the 1854 National Emigration Convention. The extraordinary persistence and creativity of his efforts to bring about social change make him one of the most fascinating African American leaders and writers of the nineteenth century and arguably one of the three or four most influential.

True Patriotism

Martin R. Delany

The North Star, 8 December 1848

Patriotism consists not in a mere professed love of country, the place of one’s birth – an endearment to the scenery, however delightful and interesting, of such country; nor simply the laws and political policy by which such country is governed; but a pure and unsophisticated interest felt and manifested for man – an impartial love and desire for the promotion and elevation of every member of the body politic, their eligibility to all the rights and privileges of society. This, and other than this, fails to establish the claims of true patriotism.

From periods the most remote, the most improper application has been made of the endearing term Patriot. Whether the most absolute monarch, crowned with the hereditary diadem, armed with an unlimited sceptre, the most intolerable despot bearing the title of sovereign – the most cruel and heartless oppressor and slaveholder under the boasted title of President -the most relentless butcher and murderer called Commander-in-Chief – the most haughty and scornful aristocrat who tramples upon the people’s rights in the halls of legislation – the most reckless and unprincipled statesman “rioting upon the spoils of a plundered revenue” – whether Phillips, Curran or Gratan in defence of Irish constitutional liberty – Emmet upon the scaffold, refusing to let his epitaph be written until Ireland was free -William Tell, under sentence of death, baffling the schemes of the German tyrant, Gesler – the French baron, Lafayette, leaving his native country and princely fortune, to share in common the fate of the struggling American Washington, as the leader of his country’s destiny – O’Connell, as the Liberator – Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, or John Quincy Adams, standing in the frontal ranks as defenders of American rights, or Mitchell and O’Brien, who sacrificed their all, being forever divorced and exiled from the most tender ties of domestic affections, by the severity of the laws of their country, for daring to discard provisions deemed pernicious to the welfare of their countrymen; all have laid equal claim to a share of the popular gratitude, and been endowed with the loved title of patriot.

A patriot may exist, whether blessed with the privileges of a country, favored with a free constituency, or flying before his pursuers, [and] roam an exile, the declared outlaw of the power that besets him. Love to man, and uncompromising hostility to that which interferes with his divine God-given rights, are the only traits which distinguish the true patriot. To be patriotic, is to be philanthropic; to be which, is necessary to love all men, regarding their humanity with equal importance.

Much has been the interest felt and manifested in this country in every movement, with exceptions to be named, whether home or abroad, in favor of human liberty, and those who were foremost in the struggle, bequeathed their names to present and future time, to become the subject of the poet and the theme of the historian. Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland, Germany, France, England, Scotland and Ireland, of modern date, all, have had their patriots, each of whom in succession, has shared largely of America’s eulogium. And of all who have scanned the ordeal before them, there were none perhaps for whom there has been expressed more sympathy than the late victims of British displeasure, the Irish patriots and convicts, Mitchell and O’Brien, especially the latter, the severity of whose sentence aroused every feeling and expression of opposition to the execution of the sentence.

To witness the public demonstrations, as manifested in favor of the Irish struggle, in which Mayors of cities, Judges of Courts, sons of Ex-Presidents and Ex-Governors participated, and the universal interest felt in the result, is well tended to deceive, and betray into the idea those not otherwise advised, that this nation is a nation of justice. But how will America stand, when compared with other countries, dark as may be the gloom of their semi-barbarous laws? Condemned must she be in the moral vision of the whole enlightened world. Loud, long, and damning, must be the anathema uttered against her by those whom she treats and so regards in all her legal acknowledgments as aliens and enemies, ere their eyes be opened to a sense of their condition, and she still refuses to succor them.

But how many patriots have lived, toiled, suffered and died, having worn out a life of usefulness, unobtrusively laboring in the cause of suffering humanity, living to the community and the world a life of seclusion, passing to and fro unobserved, amidst the stir and busy scenes of a metropolis, and the throng and bustle of assembled thousands. This class of patriots may be found in every country, but to none are they more common than America, and in no country would they meet with less acceptance than in this Republic. Ever professing the most liberal principles, proclaiming liberty and equality to all mankind, their course of policy gives a glaring contradiction to their pretensions, and the lie to their professions.

Prone as they are to tyrannize and despotize over the liberties of the few, the philanthropist who espouses the cause of the oppressed, is destined to a life of obscurity; instead of commendation and renown, contempt and neglect are the certain and most bitter fruits of his reward. Marked and pointed out by the finger of scorn, he at once becomes the mock of the scoffer, and hiss of the reviler; and affliction heaped upon affliction presses upon him like a mountain weight, until at last he sinks under the mighty pressure, unable longer to bear it up. Yet, galling as this may be, it is a boon for which the downtrodden, oppressed American might anxiously long, compared with his own present miserable, unhappy condition.

Among them have existed, and there do exist, those who are justly entitled to all the claims of true patriotism; but proscription, as infamous as it is wicked, has stamped the seal of degradation upon their brow; and instead of patriots, they become the felon and outlaw. Anticipated


  1. AvoidtheGroid Says:

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