Martin Delany, 'Father of Black Nationalism'

Friend and rival of Frederick Douglass argued that African-Americans should emigrate to Central or South America, later to Africa


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First of a weekly series on history makers in Pittsburgh for Black History Month


In 1846, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass came to Pittsburgh.

His purpose? He wanted to persuade a fellow African-American, Martin Delany, to become co-editor of his new newspaper, The North Star.

The editorial alliance of the two young men lasted only 18 months. But from the time of that meeting, Douglass and Delany would remain lifelong friends -- and often bitter rivals.

Today, Frederick Douglass remains well-known to many Americans. Every year, schoolchildren are assigned to read his autobiography, and his face, framed by a shock of white hair, is a familiar visage.

Except to history buffs, though, Martin Delany has largely disappeared from view. Even most Pittsburghers who work Downtown have undoubtedly walked right past the historical plaque dedicated to him next to PPG Plaza.

Yet Delany played an important role in the anti-slavery movement from before the Civil War until afterward, and is known as the "Father of Black Nationalism."

Why isn't he more visible?

Historians who study the anti-slavery movement say a lot of it has to do with the two men's "story lines."

Douglass is known as an assimilationist -- a champion of blacks being freed from slavery and then being given full rights and opportunities in America.

Delany, for much of his life, championed emigration of blacks as a way of achieving equality, first to Central or South America, and later to Africa.

"Delany argued that blacks should leave because in order to achieve their rights, they had to form a majority in society," said Richard Blackett, the Andrew Jackson professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

That's not a message that resonates with most white Americans or even many black Americans, said Laurence Glasco, a professor of black history at the University of Pittsburgh.

"There is a dominant theme of Americans, whether black or white," he said. "That theme is that America is a great land and the story of your life is how you fit into that great story.

"And anybody like Martin Delany, one of whose dominant themes is 'To hell with this place, I want out; it's not heaven, it's hell,' doesn't fit that paradigm and people don't like to hear it. It makes the person sound like a crank -- somebody who's not that serious."

Yet Delany was serious -- and brilliant, contradictory and hard to pin down, Dr. Glasco and other historians said.

He lived in Pittsburgh for nearly 25 years, later emigrating to Canada, traveling to Africa, moving to South Carolina after the Civil War and ending up near Wilberforce University in southwestern Ohio, where his gravesite is.

And throughout all those years, he and Douglass stayed in touch, debated the issues of the day, and remained linked by their ambition and competition.

Where Douglass was born a slave and escaped to freedom as a young man, Delany was born as a free black male in 1812 in Charles Town, W.Va. (which was then Virginia).

But that freedom had severe limits. When his mother, Pati, taught him and his siblings to read and write, they were cited for violating state laws against literacy instruction for black children.

Mrs. Delany quickly moved the family to Chambersburg, Pa., 130 miles east of Pittsburgh near the Maryland border, where young Martin could continue his studies without interference.

In 1831, at age 19, he headed for Pittsburgh, walking the entire way.

When he arrived here, he became a student at a school operated by the Rev. Lewis Woodson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rev. Woodson, who would go on to help establish Wilberforce University, was a strong advocate of black economic independence and was active in the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

Delany was soon involved in the Underground Railroad himself, and later established an abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery. It was published for four years in Pittsburgh, and as one of the only papers to survive a devastating fire in 1845 that destroyed a third of the city, it is still cited by historians of the period.

He also was trained in medicine by two of the leading white physicians of the city, and by 1837, ran this ad in the Pittsburgh Business Directory: "Delany, Martin R., Cupping, Leeching and bleeding."

It was a year after the great fire that Douglass came to the city from his base in Rochester, N.Y., to recruit Delany as co-editor of The North Star.

They never worked in an office together. Instead, Delany went on a "western tour" to Ohio and Michigan to recruit subscribers, and sent a series of travelogue-style letters that were printed in The North Star.

In one of them, he recounted how he and a companion were chased by a white mob in Marseilles, Ohio, northwest of Columbus. Retreating to their hotel, they watched as the mob started a bonfire and threatened their lives.

"Then came the most horrible howling and yelling, cursing and blasphemy, every disparaging, reproachful, degrading, vile and vulgar epithet that could be conceived by the most vitiated imaginations," Delany wrote, "which bedlam of shocking disregard was kept up from nine until one o'clock at night ..."

With the hotel's proprietor refusing to let the mob in, Delany was able to wait the crisis out and slip away the next day.

By the end of his tour, it was already clear that Delany and Douglass were about to part ways on The North Star. Robert Levine, a University of Maryland English professor who wrote a book about the two men, said that by the late 1840s, Delany was accustomed to being a leader, but "as co-editor of The North Star, he was suddenly cast in Douglass' shadow."

The decisive break came when Delany began to advocate black emigration at a time when Douglass was still preaching the need for free blacks to continue the anti-slavery battle in America.

Pitt's Dr. Glasco thinks a personal crisis that struck Delany in 1850 played a big part in his anger toward the country of his birth.

That year, he was accepted into Harvard Medical School to complete his physician's training. He was one of three black students at the time, and the faculty embraced them.

Most of the white students, however, did not. They approved a motion that read: "Resolved: That we have no objection to the education and evaluation of blacks but do decidedly remonstrate against their presence in college with us." Even though he had invited the African-American students to the school, dean Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. caved in to the pressure and expelled Delany and the other black students.

In the same year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to pursue and capture escaped slaves in any part of the country and set up fines for any law enforcement officer who refused to make such arrests.

Because slave owners needed only an affidavit to accuse someone of being a runaway slave, many free blacks were conscripted into slavery by the law, which outraged Delany and contributed to his support for emigration.

In his book, "The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States," written during his Pittsburgh years, Delany said:

"Let no visionary nonsense about habeas corpus, or a fair trial, deceive us; there are no such rights granted in this bill, and except where the commissioner is too ignorant to understand, when reading it, or too stupid to enforce it when he does understand, there is no earthly chance, no hope under heaven for the colored person who is brought before one of these officers of the law.

"We are slaves in the midst of freedom, waiting patiently and unconcernedly, indifferently, and stupidly, for masters to come and lay claim to us, trusting to their generosity, whether or not they will own us and carry us into endless bondage."

Over the next 15 years, Delany argued strongly for emigration, first to Central or South America, later to Africa.

Despite two trips to Africa to negotiate for possible land for settlements, though, none of his plans for blacks to leave the United States came to fruition.

He did take such action in his own life, though. In 1856, he moved to Canada, where he would stay until after the Civil War began.

By that time, Douglass had solidified his position as the leading black spokesman for abolition. He had already rewritten his popular autobiography once, and had renamed his newspaper for himself, calling it Frederick Douglass' Paper.

Douglass' careful self-marketing is another big reason his reputation has lasted, said the University of Maryland's Dr. Levine. "He took a lot of care in presenting himself to the world."

Delany was not able to do that as successfully because he did not have his own newspaper and never published an autobiography, said John Stauffer, a history professor and anti-slavery expert at Harvard University. "Delany hasn't persisted in public view primarily because he was not nearly as elegant a writer or eloquent a speaker," he said.

Despite those handicaps, "I believe Delany is second only to Frederick Douglass in significance and impact as a black leader" during the Civil War period, Dr. Stauffer said, and because of that, his name is still known among many African-Americans.

There is one other very personal arena where Douglass and Delany battled -- their appearance.

As a mulatto, Douglass was much lighter-skinned and Caucasian looking than Delany, who said he was a "full-blooded African" descended from royalty in two different tribes.

"It may be apocryphal," Vanderbilt's Dr. Blackett said, "but Frederick Douglass is quoted as saying, 'I wake up each morning and say, thank God I am a man, whereas Delany wakes up and says thank God I am a black man."

Delany even "attempted to use [his black heritage] rhetorically to say to black people that 'I would be a better leader because people can't say about me that my intelligence has anything to do with my white blood,' " Dr. Levine added.

After the Civil War began, Delany once again confounded people's expectations by returning to the United States and recruiting blacks to join the Union Army.

And toward the end of the war, he scored a coup by persuading President Abraham Lincoln to make him the first black major in the Union Army, a post Douglass had lobbied for.

After the fighting ended, Delany continued on his idiosyncratic path by joining the Freedman's Bureau in South Carolina, where he helped emancipated slaves get jobs and encouraged some of them to emigrate to Liberia in Africa.

He then abruptly switched to the Democratic Party, which was the party of the Confederacy, and worked to help poor white farmers in the region.

"This was inconceivable to someone like Douglass," Dr. Glasco said, "but Delany felt at that point that the issue was not race but class, and that these poor white farmers had legitimate grievances and he was going to help them."

Near the end of their lives, Douglass and Delany had one more meeting, and at that event, they reverted to their central messages.

On New Year's Day in 1883, about 40 black leaders gathered at a restaurant in Washington D.C. to mark the 20th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and honor Douglass, Dr. Levine wrote.

In a speech, Douglass thanked his colleagues, and said "nothing has occurred in these 20 years which has dimmed my hopes or caused me to doubt that the emancipated people of this country will avail themselves of their opportunities, and by enterprise, industry, invention, discovery and manly character, vindicate the confidence of their friends and put to shame the gloomy predictions of all their enemies."

Most of the men then offered toasts to the future of blacks in America.

Martin Delany stood, raised his glass and said: "The Republic of Liberia."


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published February 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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