Dr. Martin Robinson Delany was born on the 6th of May, 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia, (now known as West Virginia), the second of 5 children, born to his parents Samuel Delany and the former Pati Martha Peace. His father was a slave, but his mother was a free person. Dr. Delany was born with the status of his mother according to Virginia law. His grandparents were African. According to Wikipedia, Dr. Delany was educated as a child and learned to read and write using The New York Primer and Spelling Book. It was against the law in Virginia to educate black people, so when it was discovered in 1822 that Dr. Delany was learning to read and write, his mother moved with her children, to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It was not a crime for a black person to learn to read and write in Pennsylvania. In 1823, his father purchased his freedom and travelled to Chambersburg to be with his family.
In 1831, Dr. Delany walked 160 miles to Pittsburgh to attend Lewis Woodson’s African Education Society School. While he was in school he supported himself as a barber. In 1832 he worked as a physician’s assistant during a cholera epidemic. Dr. Delany worked with many doctors, gaining knowledge and their respect, but was repeatedly turned down when he applied to medical schools. In 1843, Dr. Delany founded Mystery, a respected, weekly abolitionist newspaper that spoke to economic, social and political issues affecting black Americans. Dr. Delany stopped producing the paper in 1847 and joined Frederick Douglass as co-editor of the North Star in December of 1847. Dr. Delany resigned in 1849 and focused on his Pittsburgh medical practice.
He had married Catherine A. Richards in 1843. She was born on the 10th of October, 1822 in Pennsylvania, daughter of Charles Richards and the former Felicia Fitzgerald. Dr. and Mrs. Delany had 11 children; Genefred L’Ouverture, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Catherine Matilda, Martha Priscilla, Charles Lenox Remond, Martin Boling, Alexandre Dumas, St. Cyprian, Faustin Soulouque, Placido Rameses and Ethiopia Hallie Amelia.
In 1850 with letters of recommendation from the physicians he had worked with, he was finally accepted into Harvard Medical School. He and 2 other men (Daniel Laing Jr. and Isaac Humphrey Snowden) were the first African Americans accepted to Harvard. After a few weeks, the African American students were asked to leave under protest from fellow white students.
After he left Harvard, Dr. Delany wrote The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. In August of 1854, Dr. Delany helped to organize the National Emigration Convention of Colored People and met with 106 delegates in Cleveland, Ohio to consider emigration to South America, Central America or the West Indies. Dr. Delany and his family moved to Chatham, Ontario in 1856. He had a medical practice located on King Street. In May of 1858 Dr. Delany attended John Brown’s Convention held in Chatham on May 8th, 1858. (John Brown-See Note Below).
On the 12th of July, 1859, after 3 years of planning, Dr. Delany travelled to Liberia. An article written by Dr. Delany appeared in the November 29th, 1859 edition of the Chatham Tri-Weekly Planet. In the article, Dr. Delany describes the challenges of his travels in Liberia and Niger, including a bout of fever, that confined him to bed for 5 days after a 14 mile hike through mountains. In December of 1859, Dr. Delany and his partner Robert Campbell a school teacher, acquired land for a settlement through a treaty with the King of Abeokuta. The purpose was to establish a free-labor settlement in Africa. Dr. Delany and Mr. Campbell travelled to England in May of 1860, so Dr. Delany could engage in a speaking tour to raise funds and awareness of his African plans. Dr. Delany made a lengthy trip to Niger in 1860 and returned to Chatham on the 29th of December. An article appeared in the Chatham Tri-Weekly Planet (04 January, 1861 edition) announcing that Dr. Delany was the Chief Commissioner of the Niger Valley Exploring Party. Further the article states, “The Dr. looks well, and his safe return, although doubted by many, will be no doubt cheering to the family and gratifying to his extensive acquaintances.”
Dr. Delany moved his family to the United States in the latter part of 1864. He joined the Civil War effort in March of 1865, and served as a recruiting agent for black soldiers. He became a surgeon with the 104th Colored Unit. In 1865 he was made a Major, becoming the first black man to achieve this commission. Earlier that year, he had met with President Abraham Lincoln, who was much impressed with him. President Lincoln wrote to his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, that Dr. Delany was, “a most extraordinary and intelligent man.” Dr. Delany was posted to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Dr. Delany left military service in 1868, but he remained in Hilton Head, South Carolina during the Reconstruction as an officer in the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1874, Dr. Delany was unsuccessful in a bid to become Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina.
For a time, he practiced medicine in Charleston, South Carolina. He appears on the 1880 census in Charleston with his 24 year old son, St. Cyprian. According to that same census, his wife Catherine was living in Xenia, Ohio with their son 19 year old son, Placido and their 16 year old daughter, Hallie.
Dr. Delany was an advocate of rights for black persons, all his life, at a time when it was dangerous to do so. He worked for the Freedman’s Bureau seeking a black person’s right to vote. Mrs. Delany was a seamstress.
Dr. Delany died on the 24th of January, 1885 in Wilberforce, Ohio. He was buried at Massies Creek Cemetery, Cedarville, Green County, Ohio. Mrs. Delaney died on the 11th of July, 1894 in Wilberforce, Ohio. She was buried next to her husband. For over 120 years, the graves of Mrs. Delany and three of their children, Placido (who died in 1910), Faustin (who died in 1912) and Ethiopia (who died in 1920) remained unmarked. Only Dr. Delany had a simple government-issued tombstone. In 2006 the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Centre raised $18,000 to have a black granite monument erected at the Delany family grave site.
Reference: The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volumn II Canada, 1830-1865.
Editors Note: With a handful of supporters he attempted to take over a federal armoury in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The revolt failed and members of John Brown’s small contingency were either killed or captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee. John Brown was captured, tried and convicted of treason and hung on the 2nd of December, 1859.