Let's Learn From the Past: Martin Delany
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An abolitionist, newspaper editor, doctor and 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 brought against Delany's mother for teaching her children to read, which was against the law. At 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 published west of the Alleghenies, which championed equality for blacks and supported the abolition of slavery in other parts of the nation.
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 actively recruit African-Americans to join the United States Colored Troops (USCT), who fought for the Union Army. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Delany the first African-American major, which was the highest rank of any black soldier during the war.
Following the war, he supported Reconstruction efforts and remained politically active until his death in 1875 at age 72.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can see a life-like museum figure of Delany as part of the new exhibition, "From Slavery to Freedom," which opens Friday. More information is available at www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
First Published November 29, 2012 12:00 am