Eyewitness 1864: Respected black editor endured mistreatment

During the many years he lived in Pittsburgh, Martin Delany built up a reputation for intelligence, hard work and leadership.

He was born in 1812 to a free black mother in what is now Charles Town, W.Va. Working first as a barber when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1831, he studied Greek, Latin and the Bible with a local minister and at what is now Washington & Jefferson College. He later apprenticed himself to a white doctor and eventually set up his own medical practice to serve the region's African-American community.

"Three years after his arrival in Pittsburgh, Delany was both a founder and an officer in several organizations of young Negro men and women, all formed for the self-improvement of his race," Victor Ullman wrote in his 1971 biography of the black community leader.

Mr. Ullman said one early sign of the local respect Delany had earned was his signature on a letter to The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette published on March 29, 1838. He and four other leaders of the black community, including the Rev. Lewis Woodson and businessman John B. Vashon, denied as "wholly false" a rumor that Pittsburgh's "colored citizens" had plans to storm the county jail and free an African-American man sentenced to death for murder.

In 1843 Delany began publishing The Mystery, a weekly newspaper that reported on the anti-slavery movement. His publication struggled, but a story in the Pittsburgh Morning Chronicle provides evidence of community support.

The city's African-American residents celebrated every Aug. 1 -- the date in 1834 when slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire -- for many years. The Chronicle reported on Aug. 5, 1846, that the weather had been perfect for that year's commemoration, which raised money for Delany's newspaper.

"We paid a visit ... and found collected together a large concourse of the better class of our colored people, and a pretty good sprinkling of whites," the story said. "We have not listened, for many a day, to a better address than that delivered by young [David] Peck.

"The amount of money taken in must have been large," the story concluded, "No doubt the 'Mystery' will be able to keep on its legs without difficulty hereafter."

Two years earlier, on Nov. 28, 1844, the Chronicle had come to the defense of Delany when he was denied a seat while attempting to board a stagecoach in Columbus, Ohio. Delaney, "the talented editor of the 'Mystery' of this city ... was ordered out of a stage ... although he had paid his passage money and had a receipt for the same in his pocket."

The writer then went on to offer what was a left-handed compliment at best. "Mr Delany, though a colored man, is a gentleman of talent and ability, and is doing much to place his brethren on a higher elevation than they have heretofore stood in society, as respects education and morals.

"His name will long be remembered as a benefactor of his race," the story concluded.

The writer also quoted Sir Walter Scott in describing the alternate fate of the "contemptible puppy who refused him a seat in a stage on account of his color." That villain eventually will return "to the base earth from when he sprang, Unwept, unhonored and unknown."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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