Martin R. Delany is one of the most interesting people you've never heard of.
He was, over the course of a long life (1812-85), a writer, editor, abolitionist, Harvard medical student, physician, judge, acquaintance of John Brown, and the first African American commissioned a major in the Army. He is also widely considered America's first black nationalist, the forerunner of Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X.
But unless you're a close student of African American history or 19th-century American literature, chances are very good that you don't know much about Delany, who stands in the long shadow cast by Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois.
Larry Robin is out to change that. Delany's bicentennial birthday was Sunday and Robin, owner of Robin's Bookstore in Center City and founder of the Moonstone Arts Center, has made it the occasion for a round of public events, "150 Years Challenging Racism," organized by Moonstone as the fourth installment in its multiyear People's Civil War Project. The three-pronged program, which runs through Saturday, deals with the concept of race, racial discrimination, and the life of Martin Delany.
"He was just this amazing character," Robin says. "It's unbelievable that he is not well known and honored."
Delany fits right in with the People's Civil War Project, which focuses on activists, not all of them history-book headliners, who helped shape the world in which the Civil War took place. "We're usually looking at people that are mentioned little or not at all in standard textbooks," Robin says.
Robin became aware of Delany while doing research for earlier programs in the People's Civil War Project on the abolitionist John Brown and the African American poet and novelist Frances E.W. Harper. "We kept running into the same people, including Delany," Robin recalls. Brown, who was hanged after his 1859 raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, wanted to talk to Delany about fomenting a slave revolt, according to the introduction to The Martin Delany Reader, edited by University of Maryland scholar Robert S. Levine.
Especially impressive to Robin is Delany's belief that "every people should be the originators of their own destiny." That sentiment "carries on the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, of Tom Paine, of freedom and equality for everyone," Robin says.
Being "originators of their own destiny" meant rejecting definitions assigned to blacks even by well-meaning whites, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Delany believed that Stowe's novel incorrectly portrayed slaves as passive. His own novel, Blake; or, The Huts of America, serialized in 1861-62, was the first novel by an African American male, says Robin, and features a hero who is anything but passive — a West Indian slave planning to lead a slave revolt.
A pragmatist, Delany alternated between supporting integration and emigration. In bleak times like the 1850s, with slave catchers roaming the country, he thought the best thing blacks could do was to leave America, and he even negotiated a treaty with rulers in West Africa that would have allowed creation of a settlement there.
During the Civil War, he recruited blacks for service in the Union Army. "Just like Douglass, he supports getting black troops in the Army and, just like Douglass, he meets with Lincoln, who picks him as the first black major in the Union Army," says Levine, professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of a book on Delany and Douglass. "Lincoln considered him extremely intelligent and capable," says Molefi Kete Asante, professor of African American Studies at Temple University.
Born in what is now West Virginia, Delany was raised in Pittsburgh, where he was apprenticed to a doctor, set up a medical practice, and founded a black newspaper, the Mystery. In 1847, he began coediting, with Douglass, the influential African American newspaper the North Star. He was admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1850, but white students protested and got him expelled after a single semester. An irate Delany, further angered by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which bolstered efforts to capture runaway slaves, responded by writing a book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. For the first time, says Robin, a writer was challenging "the concepts behind slavery. ... Delany is saying not just that the actions of slaveholders are wrong, but the way they think is wrong."
Delany's black nationalism revolved around two fundamental principles, says Asante. "One, black people must be self-determining, and two, they must be self-defining."