Dr. Martin Robinson Delany was “the first major Negro nationalist” and “the embodiment of Negro separatism,” as recent writers on American Negro history have called him.1 There had been forerunners and predecessors going back to Paul Cuffee, the half-Negro, half-American Indian ship captain who transported thirty-eight Negroes back to Africa in December 1815. But Delany was the first to give the early movement a full-fledged theoretical basis and to act on it.
Yet the story of his life has been strangely neglected. A biography of Delany was published in his lifetime and most of the existing brief references to him have been largely based on it.2 But it was part hagiography; it skimmed over some aspects of his work of greatest interest to us now; and he lived for almost two more decades, about which only stray scraps may be found in books dealing with the rather specialized subject of post-Civil War South Carolina history.
His career was so extraordinary that it would be worth putting the bits and pieces together for their own sake. But there is always a special fascination and significance in the “father” of a living movement, especially if, as in this case, he may be peculiarly symbolic and symptomatic of its entire course from his time to ours.
He was the grandson of slaves. His father’s father was supposed to have been an African chieftain of the Golah tribe, captured with his family in battle, sold as a slave, and brought to America. His mother’s father was said to have been an African prince of the Mandingo line in the Niger Valley, also captured in war, enslaved, sold, transported to America. His parents, however, were free when he was born in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1812. He was taught how to read and write by itinerant Yankee peddlers who used to give free lessons as they sold the ubiquitous New York Primer and Spelling Book.
When he was ten the household moved north to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, ostensibly because his mother felt persecuted by white neighbors who resented the fact that her children were being taught to read. Nine years later he went off to Pittsburgh to attend a school run by a Negro educational society. In 1843, when he was thirty-one, he began to put out in Pittsburgh one of the first Negro weekly publications, the Mystery, which he edited for almost four years. It was devoted to “the interest and elevation of his race,” the cause with which he was increasingly identified, whatever else he was doing.
In 1846 Frederick Douglass, the famous Negro abolitionist, came to Pittsburgh and was so impressed with Delany’s enterprise that they formed a temporary partnership. Delany disposed of his interest in the Mystery and, in 1847-48, served for a few months as Douglass’s co-editor on the latter’s first organ, The North Star. In 1849 Delany left Douglass altogether in favor of an earlier ambition, the study of medicine, and after being rejected by three…
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