Let's Learn From the Past: Martin Delany

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An abolitionist, a newspaper editor, a doctor and a military officer, Martin Delany was one of the nation's most influential African-American leaders in the 19th century.

Born on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Va. (now West Virginia), Martin Robinson Delany was the son of a free mother and an enslaved father.

In 1822, the Delany family moved to Chambersburg, Pa., to escape charges against Delany's mother for teaching her children to read, which was against the law. At age 19, he moved west to Pittsburgh, where he studied medicine, writing and other subjects through private tutors and all-African-American schools.

A free black man in Pittsburgh, Delany became an outspoken voice against slavery and oppression. In 1843, he published The Mystery, the first African-American newspaper west of the Alleghenies, which championed equality for African-Americans and supported the abolition of slavery.

Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist, was so impressed with The Mystery that he made Delany a co-editor of his newspaper, The North Star, in 1847.

Delany left The North Star in 1849 to enroll at Harvard Medical School, where he was one of just three African-American students. After a group of white students protested the presence of blacks in the classroom, Delany and his classmates were reluctantly dismissed from the school.

Delany returned to Pittsburgh and began to question whether African-Americans could ever be considered equal in the U.S. He traveled to Africa and London to negotiate the possibilities of forming a homeland for African-Americans. His subsequent writings, including his manifesto "Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent," are considered to be the foundation of Black Nationalism.

After the outset of the Civil War, Delany returned to the U.S. and began to recruit African-Americans to join the United States Colored Troops, who fought for the Union Army. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Delany a major, the highest rank of any black soldier during the war.

Following the war, Delany supported Reconstruction efforts and remained politically active until his death in 1875 at age 72.

On Saturday at 11 a.m., visitors to the Heinz History Center can get a behind-the-scenes look at the "Pennsylvania's Civil War" exhibit as part of a panel discussion with History Center curators, designers and builders. The panel will discuss how the exhibit's features and settings were developed, including a new lifelike museum figure of Martin Delany. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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