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 schools, he was admitted into the medical department of Harvard College, from which he was graduated in 1852. In his later practice he specialized in diseases of women and children.

At the age of forty Delany had proved his abilities in at least two professions. In his prime he was described as a formidable figure of a man. He was, his contemporary biographer wrote, of “medium height, compactly and strongly built, with broad shoulders, upon which rests a head seemingly inviting, by its bareness, attention to the well-developed organs, with eyes sharp and piercing, seeming to take in everything at a glance at the same time, while will, energy, and fire are alive in every feature; the whole surmounted on a groundwork of most defiant blackness.” Delany himself liked to boast that “there lives none blacker than himself.” Frederick Douglass is supposed to have said: “I thank God for making me a man simply; but Delany always thanks Him for making him a black man.”3 Another contemporary testified: “He is short, compactly built, has a quick, wiry walk, and is decided and energetic in conversation, unadulterated in race, and proud of his complexion. Though somewhat violent in his gestures, and paying but little regard to the strict rules of oratory, Dr. Delany is, nevertheless, an interesting, eloquent speaker.”4

But journalism and medicine were merely prologue to Delany’s historically more important political career. As late as 1851, it seems, he was still opposed to all emigrationism, even to Canada.5 In 1852, however, he suddenly burst forth with a privately published book in which the earliest “black nationalism” was formulated in unmistakable terms. This book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, and its even more famous Appendix, entitled “A Project for an Expedition of Adventure to the Eastern Coast of Africa,” are the locus classicus of black nationalism in America.


One sentence in the Appendix is the most quoted in the work: “We are a nation within a nation;—as the Poles in Russia, the Hungarians in Austria; the Welsh, Irish and Scotch in the British dominions.” Therefore Delany advocated founding a new Negro nation on the eastern coast of Africa “for the settlement of colored adventurers from the United States and elsewhere.”

But Delany’s viewpoint and entire career were more complicated than these words might make him appear to be. A close reading of the entire book—neither the man nor his work has ever been given the study it deserves—reveals that his emigrationist nationalism sprang from a rather unusual source. In the body of the book Delany wrote:

Our common country is the United States. Here we were born, here raised and educated; here are the scenes of childhood; the pleasant associations of our school-going days; the loved enjoyments of our domestic and fireside relations, and the sacred graves of our departed fathers and mothers, and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us.

He continued:

We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship—natural claims upon the country—claims common to all others of our fellow citizens—natural rights, which may, by virtue of unjust laws, be obstructed, but never can be annulled.

Yet the Negroes were “aliens to the laws and political privileges of the country.” Whatever the theory, the facts were “impregnable.” In a later passage he expressed his attitude toward the United States even more poignantly:

We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving us from her embraces….

Thus Delany’s “black nationalism” was based on unrequited love, on rejection by whites, rather than on a deeply rooted, traditional attachment to another soil and another nation.

In a letter that same year to William Lloyd Garrison, the leading white abolitionist, Delany clearly revealed that his pro-Africanism was a reluctant reaction to the refusal of whites to grant or accept full equality:

I am not in favor of caste, nor a separation of the brotherhood of mankind, and would as willingly live among white men as black, if I had an equal possession and enjoyment of privileges; but shall never be reconciled to live among them, subservient to their will—existing by mere sufferance, as we, the colored people, do, in this country. The majority of white men cannot see why colored men cannot be satisfied with their condition in Massachusetts—what they desire more than the granted right of citizenship. Blind selfishness on the one hand, and deep prejudice on the other, will not permit them to understand that we desire the exercise and enjoyment of these rights, as well as the name of their possession. If there were any probability of this, I should be willing to remain in the country, fighting and struggling on, the good fight of faith. But I must admit, that I have no hopes in this country—no confidence in the American people—with a few excellent exceptions—therefore, I have written as I have done [italics in original—T.D.].6

The only remedy for Delany, in 1852 and for some years thereafter, was mass emigration, which, he acknowledged, was “a new feature in our history.” In the book itself he argued heatedly against going to Liberia and still wanted to stay at least in some part of the Americas: “Where shall we go? We must not leave this continent; America is our destination and our home.” The only question was, North or South? He came down hard in favor of Central America, South America, and the West Indies. In another respect, however, his views anticipated those of Booker T. Washington. He advised people that business was more important to them at that stage than the professions. “We should first be mechanics and common tradesmen, and professions as a matter of course would grow out of the wealth made thereby.”

Thus Delany ruled out Africa in the body of the book. He added Africa to South America, Mexico, the West Indies, “etc.,” only in the Appendix, without any explanation for his change of mind. By insisting on the eastern coast of Africa about which he still knew little—he merely called for an expedition to find a suitable location for “colored adventurers,” not necessarily for the entire people—he implied that he could not simply advocate that the American Negroes should go back to the African nation from which they had come. He hazily conceived of what was to be, in effect, a new nation somewhere in eastern Africa, a transplant from the United States.


The entire scheme shows that he had hardly thought it out before he rushed into print. He wrote it hastily, as he himself related, in a month during a business trip to New York, while he was attending to other business during the day and sometimes lecturing on physiology in the evening. That he could turn out such a work in his spare time in so short a period was evidence of his enormous energies, but the circumstances of its composition also explain some of its unevenness and discrepancies. The book itself encouraged emigration to the West Indies, South America, or Central America; the Appendix encouraged emigration to Africa; and Delany made no effort to explain the shift in his interest.7

In any case the book was not “well received” by those for whom it was intended.8 Abolitionists hotly criticized it as fostering another form of white colonization and, therefore, acting as an impediment to immediate emancipation. Delany was sufficiently impressed by the criticism to order a halt in the sale of the book.9 Thus, curiously, he owed his lasting fame to a hastily written book which he tried to suppress.

The pro-African Appendix was especially antipathetic to the American Negro mood, however emigrationist. In July 1853, when Delany and others issued a call for a National Emigration Convention to be held the following year, they warned that “no person will be admitted to a seat in the Convention, who would introduce the subject of emigration to the Eastern Hemisphere—either to Asia, Africa, or Europe—as our object and determination are to consider our claims to the West Indies, Central and South America, and the Canadas.”10

Inasmuch as Delany had come out in favor of all these places at one time or another, it was probably not too hard for him to agree to these terms. At the convention itself, held in Cleveland, August 24-26, 1854, Delany delivered a long report on the “Political Destiny of the Colored Race, on the American Continent,” in which he forecast that Canada was destined to come into the United States “at no very distant day” and therefore recommended the former as a “temporary asylum” only. He strongly favored emigration to Central America, South America, and the West Indies, with Canada as a last resort if it remained independent and if the other places proved to be unfeasible.

The action of the convention itself, however, was much more cautious. It merely passed a resolution urging American Negroes to purchase as much land as possible in Canada, especially in the still sparsely settled western provinces, without making any reference to land south of the United States.11 It authorized a “foreign mission” to make a “geographical, topographical and political” survey of such countries as it might choose, with the proviso that “the position of the colored people in the United States be not compromised.” And it adopted a “Platform: or Declaration of Sentiments” which indicated a much greater interest in equality in the United States than emigration elsewhere.12

Subsequently Delany revealed that the convention had not altogether neglected Africa. In “secret sessions,” he disclosed, the convention had agreed to hold Africa “in reserve”.13 For the time being, however, emigrationist hopes centered on Haiti. In 1855 the Reverend James Theodore Holly went to Haiti for a month and reported that laborers were offered “favorable inducements” to settle there.14 A second emigrationist convention was held in 1856, by which time Delany had moved to Chatham, Ontario, one of the organized Negro communities in Canada, and illness prevented him from attending. Finally, at the third convention, held at Chatham in 1858, Delany’s wish was granted. He was permitted to head an expedition of five “to make a topographical, geological and geographical examination of the Valley of the River Niger.”

But his commission explicitly stipulated that the expedition was for “the purposes of science and for general information; and without any reference to, and with the [General] Board [of Commissioners] being entirely opposed to any Emigration there as such.”15 This was hardly evidence of backing for his more far-reaching scheme. Delany set off for Africa in 1859; he traveled widely for about a year, during which he signed “treaties” with eight native kings of Abeokuta for grants of land to establish American Negro colonies in the Yoruba area. Soon afterward the kings “reneged on” the grants. 16

While Delany was in New York arranging for his trip to Africa, he showed the manuscript of a novel, Blake: or, the Huts of America, to the editors of the forthcoming Anglo-African Magazine. He permitted them to copy chapters 28, 29, and 30 only, which they proceeded to publish in the first number dated January 1859. Then he evidently changed his mind because the magazine went back to Chapter 1 in the next issue and continued to publish the first twenty-three chapters in the subsequent six issues, whereupon they suddenly cut off further installments without explanation. So we will never know how the story came out, except for the information in an editorial note that the entire work contained some eighty chapters and about 600 pages which “not only shows the combined political and commercial interests that unite the North and South, but gives in the most familiar manner the formidable understanding among the slaves in the United States and Cuba.”

The hero of this story is Henry, “a black—a pure negro—handsome, manly and intelligent,” who had been educated in the West Indies but “decoyed away” into slavery in Mississippi in his youth. When Henry learned that his wife had been sold and sent off to Cuba during his absence, he decided to organize a secret movement of slaves throughout the South to set off a “general insurrection.” Most of the published chapters tell how he went from state to state organizing the uprising. Delany was no novelist, but he was willing to try his hand at almost anything (including a “new theory” of planetary attraction), and his novel can be read with much profit as a fascinating political and social document.17

From Africa, Delany went on to London, in 1860—where a highly revealing international incident occurred. His exploration of Africa had made him something of a celebrity, and he was invited to attend the International Statistical Congress in July of that year, an honor which he particularly savored. It was a most distinguished gathering of scientists from all over the world, and the entire diplomatic corps, including the American Ambassador, George Mifflin Dallas, a former Vice-President of the United States, was present. After an opening address by Prince Albert, the royal consort, some special guests were introduced by the eighty-two-year-old Lord Brougham, the eminent British legal reformer, well known for his anti-slavery sentiments. According to the account in The Times of London, Lord Brougham ended his introductions by turning to the American Ambassador and saying: “I hope our friend Mr. Dallas will forgive me reminding him that there is a negro present, a member of the Congress.” The Times reported that this statement was greeted with “loud laughter and vociferous cheering.”

Inasmuch as the others had responded to Lord Brougham’s introductions, Delany decided to say a few words: “I pray your Royal Highness will allow me to thank his lordship, who is always a most unflinching friend of the negro, and I assure your Royal Highness and his lordship that I am a man.” This pointed remark, which suggested that there were places where Delany was not treated as “a man,” was not lost on the audience. The Times noted: “This novel and unexpected incident elicited a round of cheering very extraordinary for an assemblage of sedate statisticians.”18

Ambassador Dallas, a native of Philadelphia, was stunned by the unexpected scene. He described his reaction in his diary:

I perceived instantly the grossness of the act, and seeing the black in the very centre of the philosophers, hadn’t doubt that it was a premeditated contrivance to provoke me into some unseemly altercation with the coloured personage. I balked that by remaining silent and composed. The gentleman man of colour, however, rose, and requested permission of the Prince Consort, as chairman, to thank Lord Brougham for his notice, with an emphatic conclusion, “I am a man.” Query: Is not the [British] government answerable for this insult? Or must it be regarded as purely the personal indecency of Lord Brougham?19

The official American delegate to the Congress, Judge Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, then President of South Carolina College, was much less composed. His biographer has recorded:

Longstreet, taking all this for a deliberate reflection upon both him and his government, from that contaminate assemblage withdrew his presence. Brougham’s action, he reported to the Secretary of the Treasury, had constituted “an ill-timed assault upon our country, a wanton indignity offered to our minister, and a pointed insult offered to me.” There was a great commotion.20

With the exception of one delegate from Boston, who represented his state only, the entire American delegation strode out of the Congress in protest. Judge Longstreet later explained that his withdrawal had been provoked less by the remarks of Lord Brougham or Dr. Delany than by the demonstrative response of the entire assembly.21

The following day Lord Brougham only made matters worse by trying to explain his “offense.” He protested: “Why, here we see in this unequalled council, a son of Africa, one of that race whom we have been taught to look upon as inferior. I only alluded to this as one of the most gratifying as well as extraordinary facts of the age.”22 Both Lord Brougham and the philanthropic Lord Shaftesbury made efforts to mollify the American Ambassador publicly and privately, without success.

The British and American press sizzled over the contretemps for days. The British papers professed to be shocked by the American walkout. The American press, even in New York, was divided. The Evening Post and the New York Tribune sided with Lord Brougham. The former commented caustically:

Under ordinary circumstances and if addressed to any other man in the assembly, such a remark would have had no significance, but addressed to the representative of the American government, which denies to the negro the privilege of citizenship or the capacity to acquire it, addressed to Mr. Dallas, who refuses colored people wishing to visit the Old World the protection of his country’s flag, the simple testimonial of a passport that they are Americans, the remark of Lord Brougham was certainly one of the most humiliating public rebukes ever administered by one statesman to another.

The Tribune interpreted the incident as showing “the scorn with which an enlightened and unprejudiced people look upon proscription on account of color put in force by a nation whose unceasing boast is of the perfect freedom it secures to all.” But three papers were lined up on the other side. The World accused Lord Brougham of a “constitutional penchant for snubbing foreign ministers.” The New York Times held that Lord Brougham had convicted himself “of a violation of Parliamentary rules, scarcely to be expected from one of his years and experience, but also of a decided breach of common politeness.” And the New York Herald was so wrathful that it turned in rage on the American Ambassador:

The conduct of Mr. Dallas, the Minister of the United States in England, in not resenting the insulting sneer addressed to him, in his capacity as the representative of his country and its institutions, by Lord Brougham, at the meeting of the Statistical Congress of all nations, is deserving of the severest reprobation at the hands of the American people and the American government.23

The only one who came out of this imbroglio unscathed was Dr. Delany himself. Before leaving London, he read a paper on his researches in Africa before the Royal Geographical Society. He continued to lecture on Africa in England and Scotland for almost seven months. He returned to Canada in 1861, six weeks after the Civil War had broken out, and then went to the United States for more lectures. He had, by this time, spent almost ten years in propaganda and organization to convince his compatriots to leave the country and settle elsewhere, preferably in Africa.

None of his efforts had produced the slightest practical result. In 1861-62 several hundred Negroes did emigrate from the United States and Canada to Haiti, but that was largely the work of Reverend Holly. Unfavorable circumstances and the war quickly aborted this experiment, and most of the emigrants were soon glad to return north. As late as 1862, 242 California Negroes sent a petition to Congress to colonize them “in some country in which their color will not be a badge of degradation.” They preferred to go anywhere rather than to stay in the United States where, they said, Negroes faced a dismal, if not a hopeless, future. But this group was exceptional; the Civil War was itself the great hope of the vast majority of American Negroes.24

For Delany, the Civil War was, in a sense, a test of his emigrationist beliefs. If he really felt that Negroes were “aliens” in the United States, North and South, the victory of one side or the other should not have mattered so much to him. Even if his sympathies almost inevitably went out to the North, his emigrationist position did not logically oblige him to support it, and he might even have said a plague on both their houses.

Yet according to the biography written in his own lifetime, Delany soon said that the war “had become inseparable from his daily existence, almost absorbing everything else, and nothing would content him but entering the service; he cared not how, provided his admission recognized the rights of his race to do so.”25 He wanted to organize what he called a “corps d’Afrique,” that is, a totally black unit in the Union Army. Determined to get into the action, he obtained an appointment as acting assistant agent for recruiting and acting examining surgeon in Chicago. He then recruited in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Connecticut. He co-authored a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, offering to raise “a regiment or brigade in a shorter time than could otherwise be effected.”26 Early in 1865, the last year of the war, he managed to confer with President Lincoln personally.

As Delany later told the story, it was a historic encounter. With “a generous grasp and shake of the hand,” Lincoln led Delany to a seat in front of him. “Serious without sadness, and pleasant withal,” Delany recalled, the President placed himself “at ease, the better to give me a patient audience.”

Lincoln made the first move. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Nothing, Mr. President,” Delany replied proudly. “But I’ve come to propose something to you, which I think will be beneficial to the nation in this critical hour of her need.”

They talked frankly about the prejudices that prevented white soldiers from serving under a black commander or white officers from associating with black officers. When Lincoln asked Delany how he would “remedy” this condition, the latter launched into his grand design:

I propose, sir, an army of blacks, commanded entirely by black officers, except such whites as may volunteer to serve; this army to penetrate through the heart of the South, and make conquests, with the banner of Emancipation unfurled, proclaiming freedom as they go, sustaining and protecting it by arming the emancipated, taking them as fresh troops, and leaving a few veterans among the new freedmen, when occasion requires, keeping this banner unfurled until every slave is free, according to the letter of your proclamation.

Delany promised an army of 40,000 blacks in three months.

Lincoln was delighted. “This is the very thing I have been looking and hoping for; but nobody offered it.” He chided Delany that the latter had not understood his Proclamation and had previously advised remaining passive in order not to embarrass or compromise the government. Then the President suddenly turned and said: “Will you take command?” A few minutes later he handed him a card of introduction to Secretary Stanton on which was written: “Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.”27

Delany was soon commissioned a Major of Infantry, attached to the 104th United States Colored Troops—which was much better than Frederick Douglass, who also wanted a commission, was able to do.28 Major Delany was sent to Charlestown, South Carolina, to aid in the recruitment and organization of another Negro regiment. To his pious biographer, and no doubt to most Negroes at that time, Delany the Major of Infantry was far more important than Delany the father of emigrationism.

After the Civil War, Delany settled in Charlestown, where he began a new—and still more surprising—career.

South Carolina in 1865 was a burned-out shell. Its Negroes had been freed, but little else had been done for them or even decided. The Freedmen’s Bureau was set up in March of that year, mainly to give them aid and protect their interests. In this bureau, Major Delany—he was no longer called “Doctor”—worked for the next three years. This position, his military rank, and the prestige he had brought with him from the North enabled him to play an increasingly active part in the political life of the state.

When the question of Negro suffrage arose, Delany did not hesitate to write to President Andrew Johnson, whom he assured that the blacks were a new force in American life, without which the Civil War could not have been won. “What becomes necessary, then, to secure and perpetuate the Union,” he argued, “is simply the enfranchisement and recognition of the political equality of the blacks and the whites in all of their relations as American citizens.”29 He participated in a Colored People’s Convention at Charlestown in November 1865, the first organized effort of South Carolina Negro leaders to act together politically. The convention, which referred to itself as “an extraordinary meeting, unknown in the history of South Carolina,” demanded equal suffrage and all other rights of citizenship for Negroes.30 The emphasis was all on equality at home, not emigration abroad. Delany’s influence must have been considerable, even if Longstreet’s biographer no doubt exaggerated by attributing to Delany “practical control of Charlestown, holding it under his foot, revelling in his enjoyment of newly gained authority.”31 As late as 1924, when the Longstreet biography was published, it was still possible to perpetuate in print the affronts and aspersions which Delany must have suffered in his time.

After the Freedmen’s Bureau, Delany spent several years as a custom-house inspector at Charlestown. During these years, in the late 1860s and early 1870s, South Carolina politics were dominated by the Radical Republicans, based largely on Negro support. In 1874, however, a split in the Radical Party gave Delany his greatest political opportunity. A newly formed Independent Radical Party nominated a white judge, John T. Green, for governor, and Delany for lieutenant-governor. Delany campaigned so ably that former Governor Benjamin F. Perry, not a friend of Negro political rights, paid him this tribute: “I must say he has exhibited, in his speeches and addresses, more wisdom and prudence, more honor and patriotism, than any other Republican in South Carolina, white or black.”32

A major South Carolina historian, referring to this period, paid tribute to Delany as “the upright and able Negro”.33 Green and Delany were narrowly defeated by a vote of 80,403 to 68,818. Green died a few months later, and historians have noted that, if Green had been elected, “Delany would have become governor largely through the vote of white people.”34 For one who had been in the state no more than ten years, and whom many whites thought of as a “Negro carpetbagger,” even if of “the best type,”35 this was no small achievement.

The Democratic Party made its comeback in South Carolina in 1876. As the political instrument of the pre-Civil War slave-holding white oligarchy, it was abominated by most Negroes. The man who enabled the Democrats to regain power was Wade Hampton, a former Confederate general and wealthy planter. In his campaign Hampton used what friendly historians have called “force without violence”36 to intimidate the Negroes and friendly persuasion to win them over. His “force” was made up of armed whites organized into “rifle clubs,” whose uniform was a red shirt. These “Red Shirts,” as they were called, “were used for political purposes and the display of armed force intimidated many voters,” historians have testified.37 Hampton also appealed to Negroes to support him as their best Democratic friend. There were no Negroes at the convention that nominated Hampton and none on the Democratic ticket, despite a substantial majority of Negro voters in the state.

To the astonishment and consternation of most South Carolina Negroes, Delany came out for Hampton and campaigned vigorously for him. Delany was not the only Negro to support the Democrats, but the majority remained loyal to the Republicans. His position was so little appreciated by most Negroes that Delany was treated roughly. At one meeting he was “howled down” and prevented from finishing his speech.38

Another incident, known as the “Cainhoy massacre,” was more serious. A riot broke out at a meeting near Cainhoy, in Charlestown county, at which Delany was again prevented from speaking; he and others were forced to take refuge in a brick house adjoining the local church, which was attacked by infuriated Negroes armed with muskets; six whites and one Negro were killed that day in battles that raged in and around the town.39 But Delany went on campaigning for Hampton, who gained enough Negro votes to win the election.40 The vote was so close that only a few Negro votes were needed to tip the balance. Hampton promptly rewarded Delany by appointing him a trial justice in Charlestown.

Why did Delany turn against the Negro Reconstructionists and go over to Wade Hampton, whom they considered the white enemy? In 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, Delany had urged Negroes to “be satisfied to take things like other men in their natural course and time, preparing themselves in every particular for local municipal positions,” and then they could “expect to attain to some others in time.” But most Negro leaders in South Carolina were not satisfied to wait for what they considered their due share of power. By 1870, 86 of the 156 members of the state legislature were Negroes, and the Negro majority rose to 106 two years later.

Delany himself continued to be more interested in “public equality” than in “social equality.” The former consisted of full civil and political rights as well as free access to most public facilities. “Social equality,” Delany thought, could not be legislated. “I don’t believe in social equality; there is no such thing,” he told a large Charlestown audience in 1870. “If we want to associate with a man, we’ll do it, and without laws.” In that same year, however, his own ambitions rose, and he contended that “black men must have black leaders,” including “a colored Lieutenant-Governor, and two colored men in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, and our quota of State and county officers.”41

In 1871, however, Delany sternly censured the “carpetbaggers” from the North, some of whom worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, for deliberately dividing colored people and accused them of “deception, lying, cheating and stealing.” He scoffed at them as generally coming from the “lowest grade of Northern society, Negro haters at home…who could not have been elected to any position of honor or trust in their homes.”42 With such sentiments, Delany earned a reputation as one of the more moderate Negro spokesmen in the state.

In a letter to Justice J. J. Wright, a Negro, in 1874, before Delany was nominated for lieutenant-governor, he criticized the Reconstructionists so severely that he ascribed to them only one commendable act. This was the establishment of a Land Commission, set up to buy lands and distribute them to freedmen, but fraud and corruption had largely defeated its purpose. In his letter Delany blamed the Reconstructionists for excessive taxation and cautioned the Negroes against corruption. Though blacks outnumbered whites in the state at this time, he foresaw with foreboding a future white majority through increased immigration.

“The white race,” he wrote, “is true to itself, and it is useless and doing injustice to both races to conceal the fact that in giving liberty and equality of right to the blacks, they had no desire to see them rule over their own race.” And he added: “Rest assured of this that there are no white people North or South, who will submit to see the black rule over the whites in America.”43

Delany’s position commended him to the state press, which frequently praised him as “the honest exemplar of the honest colored men of South Carolina.” Most of the white press supported Delany’s candidacy in 1874, as a result of which he and Judge Green won the moderate white vote.44 In 1876 Delany supported Hampton, then regarded as a proponent of compromise, on the ground that it was necessary “to aid that effort which tends to bring about a union of the two races…in one common interest in the State.”45 A newspaper reporter noted that Delany was quickly forgiven for his support of Hampton. “Negroes who would have smashed his skull gleefully in September, 1876, were going to him in 1878 with their troubles and obeyed without question his orders, advice and interpretations of the law. What he said was law and he straightened the most complicated domestic relations happily and justly. White people also learned to respect him and trust him implicitly.”46

Nevertheless, Delany’s last important political act was to give aid and comfort to what one historian has called a white “counter-revolution.”47 By the end of the century, few Negroes even had the right to vote in South Carolina. Delany seems to have had no regrets. While serving as trial justice, he was visited by a British traveler, Sir George Campbell, who left this impression:

I went to see Mr. D————, a pure negro and notable character. He has been in England and in Africa, and has seen the world. He is now a justice of the peace here—Trial Justice, they call it. He was appointed by Wade Hampton. He seems a very characteristic, pleasant, amusing sort of person, and talks well. He was educated in the North. He is in favour of Wade Hampton, who, he says, appoints black men when they are really educated and fit. I hear he quite holds his own as justice.48

The old Delany was not totally suppressed. During his term as trial justice there was a mass agitation for a Negro exodus from South Carolina, partially set off by Hampton’s election. In 1878 a boat chartered by the Liberian Exodus Association carried 206 passengers from Charlestown to Liberia. Despite the harsh things he had written about Liberia in his 1852 book, Delany was drawn into the movement which, as always, ended disastrously.49 Of this campaign, Sir George Campbell commented shrewdly: “The upper class of blacks do not go themselves, but preach to their countrymen the advantage of going.”50 In these hectic years Delany somehow found time to apply for a patent on an invention to facilitate the ascent and descent of locomotives.51

But Delany had hitched his wagon to Wade Hampton, whose governorship did not last very long. In 1878 the Republican extremists, who considered him much too soft on the Negro question, succeeded in ridding themselves of him in state politics by sending him to the United States Senate. With Hampton gone, Delany was soon deprived of his influential judicial post. “I lost as soon as they got rid of him [Hampton] by sending him to the U.S. Senate, as he was too liberal for the rank and file of the party leaders,” Delany commented ruefully. 52

In 1879 Delany had the satisfaction of publishing a book on “ethnology.” In it, he argued in favor of keeping the races “pure” by discouraging intermarriage, and he forecast that in time “there will be but the three original sterling races”—yellow, black, and white. The “African race in Africa,” he admonished, should not be judged “by those portions of that race found out of Africa,” whom he considered vastly inferior to those in Africa. His last thoughts on Africa were:

Untrammelled in its native purity, the race is a noble one, and worthy to emulate the noble Caucasian and Anglo-Saxon, now at the top round of the ladder of moral and intellectual grandeur in the progress of civilization.

But he held that

the regeneration of the African race can only be effected by its own efforts, the efforts of its own self, whatever aid may come from other sources.53

Delany returned to the practice of medicine, but soon moved to Boston, where he was employed by a mercantile house as an agent for a Central American firm. He died in January 1885 at the age of seventy-three in Xenia, Ohio.

Such in brief was the extraordinary life of the founding father of black nationalism in America. Yet the consistently emigrationist portion of his life filled only about ten years. After 1861 he went further and further away from the cause to which he owes his fame, and for almost a quarter of a century he represented reconciliation far more than emigration. His entire life was filled with contradictions and dualities. Before the Civil War his achievements would have done honor to any man, white or black. Yet the fact that Delany was black made it possible for one of his superior gifts and attainments to advocate fleeing from the land of his birth. Whatever his rank or profession, he still felt despised and rejected.

But this was only one side of the story, the side that black nationalists have preferred to remember. The other side was that he never fled very far from home, and even his sojourn in Canada did not last very long. He went to Africa as an explorer, not as a settler. Once the Civil War offered some hope of emancipation, he could not restrain his impulse to throw himself into the thick of it. Then he more or less made peace with the country that he once said had bade him begone and had driven him from her embraces. He preferred to support a moderate white, Wade Hampton, than to go all the way with the extreme black Reconstructionists and thus indirectly helped to restore white rule in South Carolina. This was the final contradiction, the ultimate duality in the life and public service of Martin R. Delany.

What explains the contradictions and dualities in Delany’s thinking and behavior? The answer may give us some insight into the motivation for the kind of black nationalism that has from time to time erupted in the United States.

As we have seen, Delany would infinitely have preferred freedom and equality in the land of his birth. In this respect, there was not much difference in principle between him and those who rejected his way out—emigration to another country. Both preferred, if they could get it, full American nationalism. The non-American or even anti-American nationalist impulse was rooted in frustration and despair, not in a natural, inevitable allegiance to another country.

Thus emigration was far more a negative reaction than a positive identification. The emigrationists themselves could disagree on which country was best for their purposes—somewhere in Africa, Haiti, Mexico, or elsewhere—because no other country could claim to be their native land. Delany himself could advocate emigration to Africa, move to Canada for a few years, come back to the United States for the rest of his life, and retain his interest in emigration for the less fortunate. Delany’s emigrationism was clearly related to his notion of a black “nation within a nation.” But if the American Negroes were truly a “nation within a nation,” they would have had to seek national self-determination where they were—in some sense, inside the white nation—and not by removing themselves from their native habitat as if they were a nation within some other, faraway nation. Delany was never able to face this dilemma and, therefore, he was neither successful in persuading most of his fellow black Americans nor consistent in the way he ordered his own life.

Delany’s emigrationism satisfied the fundamentally negative need at the core of black nationalism in America—the need to renounce a country in which enslavement had prevailed at worst and inequality persisted at best. But the positive need—to adopt another country—was more difficult to satisfy.

Nineteenth-century emigrationism forced black Americans to identify themselves nationally with either an existing black state, such as Liberia or Haiti, or with a blackness that was more a state of mind than a nation-state. The identification with any particular black state was never possible for enough black Americans because they did not come from or feel at home in any of them and because these states were too far removed socially and culturally to be preferable to even an inferior status in the United States, especially if it was possible by one means or another to struggle against that inferior status.

The alternative has been to conceive of a more amorphous, generalized black nationalism that takes in all black peoples everywhere. The trouble with stretching the term too far is that it is made to take in too much to be an effective nationalism.

In the white world, for example, there is French or German or Irish nationalism, but there is no such thing as “white nationalism.” White, black, brown, or yellow refers to something much larger and more inclusive than nationalism, which by its very nature may divide blacks from blacks as well as whites from whites. For a black American to emigrate has been a way of evading the problem of black nationalism in America, not of meeting it.

Thus Delany’s emigrationism from the outset reflected the dual nature, the halfway house, of what might better be thought of as a black quasi-nationalism in America. This quasi-nationalism has a history of well over a century, and if it was never able to work out a successful program, the fault was basically not in its prophets and proponents, such as the extraordinary Dr. Delany, but in circumstances and conditions beyond their control. Paradoxically, black nationalism in America arose out of a frustrated American nationalism, a frustration which could only take quasi-nationalist forms rather than form another genuine nationalism.54 The father of black nationalism in America provided the prototype of a paradox with which his political descendants are still struggling.

This Issue

March 12, 1970