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An Exchange on Black History

To the Editors:

You are to be commended for publishing, in your March 12 issue. Theodore Draper’s enlightening essay on that complex and important black activist, Martin R. Delany. Unfortunately, however, the article perpetuates a couple of errors that continue to crop up in historical writings. Draper says, “In 1849 Delany…was admitted into the medical department of Harvard College, from which he was graduated in 1852.” I gather Draper was relying heavily on Benjamin Brawley’s article in the Dictionary of American Biography and on the recent monumental American Negro Reference Book, both of which one might expect to be authoritative.

It is true that, at least as early as 1854, Delany was referred to in the press as “Dr.” and that he was credited with an M.D. degree in two early biographical anthologies on black Americans, W. W. Brown’s The Black Man (1863) and W. J. Simmons’s Men of Mark (1887). Such a work as the revised edition of the Hughes- Meltzer Pictorial History of the Negro says in three different places that Delany was a Harvard graduate; and the claim is echoed in William Loren Katz’s splendid Eyewitness (1967), and in Peter Bergman’s brand new (and error-ridden) Chronological History of the Negro.

During recent years I have intermittently been researching the history of the Negro at Harvard, and have found the facts to be otherwise. Delany did not enter Harvard in 1849. He was, however, admitted—along with two other black students—late in 1850, at age 38, as part of a colonization plan to prepare Negroes for medical practice in Liberia. But there were immediate complaints from some white students, and the medical faculty refused to allow the three black men back the next year. I have not yet had a chance to straighten out some discrepancies in Harvard’s own official records to my full satisfaction; but it is clear that Delany’s sojourn at Harvard was a brief one (despite the claim in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Americana that he was still a student there in 1852), and that he never received a Harvard degree. Frank Rollin’s rather hagiolatrous 1868 biography of Delany, which Draper repeatedly cites, chose to gloss over the episode by mentioning Delany’s admission to the Medical School and then just saying, “After leaving Harvard,” etc. And I have seen no evidence that Delany later received an M. D. degree from any other institution. (The American Negro Reference Book even goes so far, in one of its several passages on Delany, as to imply that Delany was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School!)

Furthermore, Delany’s middle name was not Robinson, but Robison—despite Brawley, Bergman et al., and now Draper. Finally, although Rollin might be excused for thinking that there was a medical department in Harvard College, surely Brawley and Draper ought to have known that it is a medical school in Harvard University.

Caldwell Titcomb

Chairman, School of Creative Arts

Brandeis University

To the Editors:

If Mr. Draper’s biographical sketch were a serious attempt to construct a factually accurate account of Delany’s long and varied career, one could perhaps excuse his polemical peroration which apparently motivated the flimsy scholarship of his biographical effort. Unfortunately, his essay is marred by minor errors (for instance, Delany never graduated from Harvard Medical School, his father was a slave, and he testified in 1877, not 1872, about the corrupt practices of a successful white, not black, senatorial candidate) as well as shoddy juxtapositions (e.g., whatever criticism can be leveled at Delany for his support of Hampton in 1876, he certainly did not know that the return of the Democrats to power in South Carolina would lead to black disfranchisement by 1900—fifteen years after his death). Trivial as these errors are they indicate the arrogance of an author willing to use cafeteria-style history to certify his latest attempt to flush out the baddies. More importantly, Mr. Draper’s casual approach to historical research results in a biographical account which elaborates upon the trivial and wrenches the important so thoroughly out of context as to distort the significance of Delany’s life and of his contribution to the continuing black nationalist tradition.

Mr. Draper’s shallowness can also be seen in his insistence upon perceiving the duality in Delany’s thought and actions as necessarily contradictory and then presenting this contradiction as symbolic of subsequent inconsistencies within black nationalism. Moreover, Mr. Draper leads himself astray by his preoccupation with categorizing all black nationalist thought into two camps—emigrationism and “internal statism.” Once he locates the proper rubric—which for Delany is, of course, emigrationism—he can gleefully elaborate upon those aspects of Delany’s life which do not “fit”—and thus, contradict—his categorization.

Martin R. Delany, as a “father of black nationalism” (certainly Henry Highland Garnet and, in a more ambiguous manner, Frederick Douglass, were other progenitors), clearly represents the “double-consciousness” of Afro-Americans which W. E. B. DuBois classically depicted more than sixty years ago. To an extent greater than perhaps any significant black leader, Delany combined a wide variety of responses to the racism of the white majority. Thus, he serves as a “father” of several black nationalisms—not merely emigrationism. In his novel, Blake, for example, he conceived of unified slave rebellions and spoke as a revolutionary nationalist. He also was an early Pan-Africanist or Pan-Black Nationalist, joining with Alexander Crummell, James Theodore Holly, and Garnet, among others, to assert the consanguinity of all black peoples. In addition, Delany’s black nationalism stressed racial pride and cohesion and, with Douglass, he anticipated Booker T. Washington in postulating a philosophy centered around self-help and self-elevation. Quite naturally—if unfortunately from a contemporary perspective—Delany also paralleled Douglass and Washington in championing capitalistic enterprise and in maintaining that blacks must imitate the dominant white society’s preoccupation with bourgeois values. Consequently, when Delany exhorted blacks to elevate themselves through increased racial consciousness and racial cohesion—a strongly nationalistic position which existed independent of his forays into emigrationism—his economic views reflected his long, if unhappy, involvement with white society. Most significantly, however, Delany’s realization of the intensity and persistence of white racism and his call for racial unity are as relevant today as they were during his own time. This, then, was his legacy to such men as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.

Floyd J. Miller

Department of History

University of Minnesota

To the Editors:

The rush of authors and publishers into the Black market is a mixed blessing. Persons, events, and documents whose existence was known only to a few scholars, buffs, and “folk” have gotten well-deserved attention. It has been commonly observed that the structure of bookmaking is such that the fruits of rediscovered material are denied to its authors’ descendants and the community in whose behalf they labored. More serious is the fact that in the hands of incompetent interpreters, the very documents born of Black people’s experience in America have become means for continuing the five century long psycho-political attack against them.

Martin R. Delany wrote in the preface to his Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered:

The colored people are not yet known, even to their most professed friends among the white Americans; for the reason, that politicians, religionists, colonizationists, and abolitionists, have each and all, at different times, presumed to think for, dictate to, and know better what suited colored people, than they knew for themselves; and consequently, there has been no knowledge of them obtained, than that which has been obtained through these mediums. [page 10, original edition]

Ironically, Delany’s life and work became a vehicle for perpetuating the very situation he protested in the hands of Theodore Draper. To the admittedly complex thought of Martin R. Delany, Mr. Draper brings the trite observation that his Black nationalism was not based “on a deeply rooted, traditional attachment to another soil and another nation.” Presumably feeling required to suggest some interpretation, Draper comes up with the idea that “Delany’s Black nationalism was based on unrequited love, on rejection by whites…,” thus dragging out of the plantation house a favorite rationalization of liberal white supremacists.

The notion that the actions of Black people are best understood to be based on love or hatred of “ol’ massa” is inadequate, morally and intellectually. Frederick Douglass, speaking to Massachusetts abolitionists in 1865 said, “I am not asking for sympathy at the hands of abolitionists…. I think the American people are disposed often to be generous rather than just…. What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not empathy, but simply justice….” Delany, Douglass’s former colleague, would have understood these words. Draper, apparently, cannot.

Delany’s writings and actions cannot be comprehended without sensitivity to the real dilemmas of any attempt to fashion a politics of Black liberation and survival in the United States. The words “Politically Considered” in the title of the book above quoted must be taken with full seriousness. Unfortunately, Draper’s inability or unwillingness to do more than parade a series of documents not only fails to illuminate the dilemma, it adds unnecessary confusion.

For example, Draper fails to mention that the heart of Delany’s Condition, etc. is chapter XVI in which he quotes the “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850” in its entirety. The political meaning for Delany was that the liberty and property, even of free Black people, was made totally insecure by this Act, and for this reason he proposes emigration. No psychological probing is necessary to explain why “he suddenly burst forth” with his book in 1852.

Draper adds further confusion when he tries to reconcile the scheme for establishing a new nation in Africa contained in the Appendix to Delany’s book with the different plan in the main body of the text. Delany makes quite clear in the Preface to The Condition etc. that the Appendix was written in 1836. “The plan of the author, laid out at twenty four years of age…” (page 9 original edition). Draper’s statement that “as late as 1851 it seems [Delany] was still opposed to all emigrationism….” is therefore incorrect. Delany was laying plans for a new nation of American Black émigrés before he began publishing the Mystery in 1843. The fundamental idea that “the claims of no people…are respected by any nation until they are presented in a national capacity” was expressed by Delany quite early. There is a real mystery here, but its solution is more likely to be found in Immanuel Kant, the French Revolution, and Zionism than in a feeling of “rejection by whites.”

Delany’s quest for justice for our “broken people” is carried on today by the Black Panthers, the Republic of New Africa, the Nation of Islam, as well as others. He is truly the “father” and Draper follows Harold Cruse, Lerone Bennett, E. M. Essein-Odum, Herbert Aptheker and others in calling attention to his significance. In the process, Draper locates new material (some of which, like the “highly revealing international incident” at the International Statistical Conference in London in 1860, could have been better left out)….

Delany’s subtle, ironic, and prophetic book perhaps best sums up my major point:

Their history—past, present and future [sic], has been written by them who for reasons well known, which are named in this volume, are not their representatives, and, therefore do not properly nor fairly present their wants and claims among their fellows.

Would that Mr. Draper, having read these words, had taken them to heart and confined himself to reproducing documents produced by people he does not understand and whose thought he does not respect.

James P. Breeden

Lecturer, Social Science Area

Graduate School of Education, Harvard Univ.

To the Editors:

As one of the senior members of a group of writers and scholars who have been researching the life of Martin Delany for several years, I would like to comment on Theodore Draper’s “The Father of American Black Nationalism” in the March 12 issue of The New York Review of Books. Mr. Draper’s article is an illustration of the danger of using secondary sources to examine the life of any black figure. Not only is his sketch full of historical errors—I counted thirteen—but his superficial examination has led him to erroneous conclusions.

Delany’s black nationalism, and the emigration movement of his time, which is only beginning to be studied, went far deeper than Mr. Draper reports. Delany, for example, knew his African grandmother. He identified with African culture as early as the 1830s—this at a time when scholars were describing Africa as a Dark Continent peopled by naked savages. At the time of his death fifty years later he still planned to return to the land of his fathers.

Fortunately, the “larger meaning of Delany’s career” and its contemporary relevance will be made evident in a group of books to be published soon. Draper says of Delany’s novel, Blake, “We will never know how the story came out.” Wrong. In the fall of 1970 Beacon Press will publish Blake, with an introduction and annotation by Floyd John Miller who has found almost the complete text. A full-length biography of Martin Delany by Victor Ullman, journalist and author of Look To the North Star, will be issued by Beacon Press in the spring of 1971. At the same time, my own biography of Delany, The Making of an Afro-American, written for young readers, will be published by Doubleday. A collection of Delany documents edited by Sterling Stuckey, scholar in residence at the Institute of the Black World, Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Atlanta, will be brought out by Beacon in 1971-2. In addition to these already scheduled books, Floyd John Miller, presently at the University of Minnesota, and Cyril Griffith of St. Paul’s College in Virginia are both completing doctoral dissertations on Martin Delany.

I am aware of all these works-in-progress because our group of Delany aficionados, although strangers to each other two years ago, have since then been freely pooling research and exchanging xeroxes of documents as well as ideas. We would have gladly shared our information with Mr. Draper as well.

Dorothy Sterling

Rye, New York

Theodore Draper replies:

I must confess that I have had some trouble making up my mind how to deal with these overheated letters. If my alleged errors are as “trivial” as Floyd J. Miller says they are, why all the fuss and fury? I do not mean that errors, even the most trivial, should be ignored; but they are rarely made to bear such a weight of accusation, vituperation, and implicit intimidation as in this case.

Something far from trivial is obviously at stake in the background. I have decided, therefore, to deal with the relatively less trivial questions raised in these letters as if they deserved to be taken with the utmost seriousness. I see no profit in wrangling over whether Delany knew his grandmother inasmuch as I never said that he did not know her. I have extracted from these letters five factual questions that have some bearing on the larger issues and that seem to be the most bothersome. They may be tremendous trifles but they have been made test cases and something can be learned from them, too.

  1. Was Delany a graduate of the Medical School of Harvard College? Did he practice medicine without an M.D. degree?

There is no doubt that Delany called himself “Dr.” and actually practiced medicine. For my purposes, it seemed hardly necessary to check on his medical degree. But such a mountain has been made out of this molehill that I have looked into it more closely.

The “Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Harvard College” for 1851-52, first term, lists Martin Robinson Delany as a student in the Medical School. It also names his previous private “instructors” as “Drs. Gazzam and Lemoyne.”

Medical education in that day was not remotely what it is now. The Harvard Medical School required only two full courses of lectures, of which only one had to be at the school itself, and three full years of instruction with a regular physician (p. 69).

One historian of Harvard, John Hays Gardner, noted: “A large majority of the students attended only the winter course of lectures, and prescribed certificates from physicians to cover the rest of the work” (Harvard, 1914, pp. 48-49). Thus it was perfectly possible and altogether likely that Delany, like most medical students at that time, spent no more than sixteen weeks at the school. In this case, it would not have been necessary for him to have returned the following year.

Even this much schoolwork was not very demanding. Samuel Eliot Morison described the system: “Medical students merely attended lectures or clinical demonstrations, for which they bought tickets at so much a course; the final examinations were oral and scandalously easy.” Professor Morison went on: “The students, many of whom had not even a good high school education, were rowdy and illiterate. They merely attended lectures and clinical demonstrations for a minimum of sixteen weeks, although they had to wait three years for a degree. The only examination, at the end, was a viva voce of each candidate by nine different professors for ten minutes each; whoever passed five subjects out of nine, received the M.D. degree” (Three Centuries of Harvard, 1936, pp. 224, 338-39).

If this was the system (at Harvard!) until 1871, Delany was undoubtedly capable of getting through it successfully. The trouble is that his name does not appear in the Quinquennial Catalogues of Harvard graduates in the compilations of 1636-1905, 1915, or 1930. These catalogues, however, are based on “very sketchy” records, as the present Registrar of the Medical School, Audrey Noreen Koller, has assured me. Professor Titcomb evidently ran into some difficulty because he tells us that he had not been able to “straighten out” discrepancies in Harvard’s official records. If my information is correct, they may never be straightened out.

What, then, may we safely conclude on the basis of the present evidence?

Delany evidently served the necessary term of instruction by two-regular physicians. He attended the Medical School for at least one term in 1851-52, which would have been enough for a single course of lectures. He called himself a “Dr.” and practiced medicine. But there is no documentary evidence that he received a pro forma medical degree from the Harvard Medical School.

I can understand why Delany’s medical degree should be a subject of such absorbing interest to Delany aficionados. But why should one of them use such an abstruse and still not completely resolved question to try to discredit me as well as—by possible implication—Delany? There is such a thing as a fitting context for fine points of this kind. There is also such a thing as a legitimate difference of judgment—in this case, the advisability of going into the pros and cons of the problem of Delany’s medical degree in a relatively short piece not intended for aficionados only.

Even if it were an error, admittedly trivial, to presume that Delany had graduated from the Harvard Medical School because all previous authorities had said so, what has this to do with “arrogance” or “cafeteria-style history”? Who is being arrogant here?

  1. Was Delany’s black nationalism based on “unrequited love” and “rejection by whites”?

I did not get this idea out of my own head. I found it in Delany himself. I quoted from his 1852 book: “We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us, etc.” I cited the long passage in his related letter to William Lloyd Garrison.

It is not enough to denounce me for dragging something out of the plantation house. I “dragged” it out of Delany’s own writings. One might challenge my interpretation, but one should not totally ignore the sources which I gave for it. The quotation from Frederick Douglass does not meet the issue. Delany was quite able to speak for himself, and black nationalists today should be careful not to read themselves into his words.

  1. Was Delany opposed to all emigrationism as late as 1851?

In the first place, this statement was not entirely my own. A footnote clearly gave as my authority Howard Bell’s well-known dissertation, A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement, 1830-1861, p. 134. Professor Bell is a highly respected student of this period, not at all unsympathetic to the nascent black nationalism. On page 134, as I noted, he gave the exact citation for Delany’s opposition to all emigrationism, even to Canada—Voice of the Fugitive, September 24, 1851, pp. 2-3.

I knew—and Professor Bell knew—that Delany had written in the preface to his 1852 book that he had “laid out” his African plan at the age of twenty-four in the mid-1830s. But there are at least four things wrong with Mr. Breeden’s version:

(a) Delany says that he “laid out” the Appendix, not that he actually wrote it at the age of twenty-four. “Laid out” is a much more ambiguous term.

(b) Mr. Breeden has conveniently truncated and thereby distorted Delany’s own account. Delany wrote that the Appendix was “laid out at twenty-four years of age, but subsequently improved on.” Thus, even if we take Delany’s version literally, the Appendix in its published form was written at a later date.

(c)In the preface, Delany mentioned his youthful pro-emigrationism in the 1830s but not his subsequent anti-emigrationism as late as 1851. Professor Bell pointed out that Delany, like Henry H. Garnet, had been anti-colonizationist in the 1840s. At a convention in 1851, Delany still held on to the earlier position that the Negro should not be lured away to lands beyond the United States. When he changed his mind in 1852, Professor Bell suspected, “he was minimizing his participation in anti-emigrationism of the Forties, and claiming that his emigrationist interests had begun in 1835” (p. 151).

Alerted by Professor Bell, I decided not to go into the complications of Delany’s youthful African scheme, whatever it may have been. For my purposes, mention of his 1851 position was enough.

(d) In any case, what Delany supposedly “laid out” in the mid-1830s cannot refute what he actually said in 1851. The latter has been documented by Professor Bell. I cannot believe that Mr. Breeden did not know of Professor Bell’s work, but even if he did not, I gave him the reference in a footnote. The least Mr. Breeden could have done was to acknowledge the source and tell us why it is “incorrect.”

  1. Mr. Miller was apparently so angry with me that he could no longer read what was on the printed page. Did I really say that Delany’s “father was a slave”?

Any reader of my article can see for himself that I wrote: “He was the grandson of slaves…. His parents, however, were free when he was born….”

This is not the kind of minor error one should make in the very act of charging someone else with minor errors.

  1. Finally, Mr. Miller charges me with “shoddy juxtapositions” because Delany “did not know” that his support of Hampton in 1876 would lead to black disfranchisement by 1900.

What I wrote was:

Nevertheless, Delany’s last important political act was to give aid and comfort to what one historian has called a white “counter-revolution.” By the end of the century, few Negroes even had the right to vote in South Carolina.

Thus, I merely pointed out what Delany’s action objectively led to, whether or not he knew it. The fact remains that most Negroes in South Carolina in 1876 bitterly opposed Hampton, and they were in this instance far more farsighted than Delany. If, as Mr. Miller implies, criticism can be leveled at Delany, it is in large part for what his support of Hampton led to.

Terms of abuse, such as “shoddy” and all the other epithets employed by Mr. Miller and Mr. Breeden, serve no useful purpose. There was a connection between 1876 and 1900 in South Carolina which should not be covered up in this way. “Counter-hagiography” has nothing to do with it. Anyone who thinks I was trying to flush out one of the baddies in my sketch of Delany can make himself believe anything.

To be sure, I tried to bring out some of the dualities and contradictions in Delany’s life and thinking that were rooted in the dualities and contradictions of the Negroes’ existence in America. There should be nothing so sinister or even so novel in this view.

I cannot discuss Dorothy Sterling’s thirteen “historical errors” because she has been cautious enough not to reveal any—unless her gratuitous reference to Delany’s grandmother is supposed to be one of them. Or is the discovery of the almost complete text of Delany’s novel her idea of a “historical error”?

I went to the trouble of finding the published portion of the novel in The Anglo-African Magazine of 1859, and I gave a fair summary of the story—as far as I know, for the first time. I lightly assumed that, after more than a century, the rest of the tale would not turn up. Apparently some of it is still missing. But is Mr. Miller’s fortunate discovery a suitable reason for her to behave as if she had caught me in flagrante delicto? The publication of Delany’s missing pages is not going to make that much difference.

But a larger issue remains. It is hinted at by Mr. Breeden who seems to think that my work in this field is part of a “bookmaking” conspiracy to deny “authors’ descendants and the community in whose behalf they labored” the fruits of their rediscovered material.

Yet, according to Dorothy Sterling, we are soon going to get the first products of a little Delany industry—four books and two dissertations. Is this how Delany’s descendants and community are being denied the fruits of his material? I would have been delighted to benefit from their work if it had been available to me. In fact, I might have been saved a good deal of trouble, because I decided to write a sketch of Delany, which occupies only about half a chapter in my forthcoming book, The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism, only because I found the existing sources so unsatisfactory. Whether the coming work on Delany will be more satisfactory remains to be seen; the Breeden-Miller letters do not inspire much confidence.

I strongly suspect that the trouble is something else. The real aim is to make Black Studies, including the history of black nationalism, a black and especially a black nationalist monopoly. The real danger is a black nationalist party line imposed on work in this field, particularly in our schools.

In effect, black nationalists wish all of us to accept the premise that they are the only ones who can understand the history of black nationalism or who have the right to write about and teach it. We must agree to accept the black nationalist party line before we are even permitted to study the question.

In its wider implications, I am convinced, this line must lead to disaster for both blacks and whites. No matter how far apart they may be in this country, they can never be disentangled, and, ultimately, they must face and solve their problems together. The alternative is a war which one side must lose and the other cannot win.

But the immediate consequences are no more desirable. If the Breeden-Miller letters are any indication, the history of black nationalism cannot be left solely to black nationalists. In these very letters, as we have seen, whatever may be embarrassing (though I do not see why), such as Delany’s documented opposition to emigrationism in 1851, is ignored or even denied. My own work will not be wasted if it forces black nationalists themselves to cope with realities that they might otherwise prefer to turn away from or cover up.

I am quite prepared to agree that they may choose to emphasize aspects of black or white history that a white historian would miss or gloss over. By the same token, however, white historians may perform the same function for blacks, so that each has something to give the other. In the end, historians must be judged as historians, not as black or white historians. If there were no common historical standards, there would be no point in arguing who is right or wrong about anything.

And if higher standards than those exhibited in these two letters do not prevail in the study of black history and especially of black nationalism, Black Studies may well become an intellectual ghetto from which the most able and intelligent students, black and white, will turn away. It is easy enough for whites to take the easy way out and rationalize the permissibility of still another black ghetto in their midst. But whatever the motives may be, this is only another form of white evasion and apathy.

Professor Kenneth B. Clark has aptly warned: “Many [black students] probably know, though the admission is too painful to endure, that a university could not surrender to student control a Black Studies Institute [as occurred at Antioch College] with exclusionary characteristics and without even minimal academic standards if it truly valued the humanity of blacks. If the university does not insist that Negroes be as rigorously trained as whites to compete in the arena of real power, or that studies of racism be as thoroughly and systematically pursued as studies of nuclear physics, one must question whether it is really serious.”

The general sense of this admonition holds just as much for black nationalist control of black history, and it has just as much to say to predominantly white universities as to black students.

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