Martin Robison Delany
They helped pave the way to make life better...
Martin Robison Delany -Born into slavery in 1812, in his "Pittsburgh years" (1831-56) this multifaceted author and intellectual became the city's first African-American doctor; started a couple of the nation's first African-American newspapers--
Delaney, a free black man, who lived in Pittsburgh during the years when slavery was still legal in large parts of the nation and teaching a black person to read was a crime.
Biography From Encyclopedia Britannica
African American abolitionist, physician, and editor in the pre-Civil War period; his espousal of black nationalism and racial pride anticipated expressions of such views a century later.
In search of quality education for their children, the Delanys moved to Pennsylvania when Martin was a child. At 19, while studying nights at an African American church, he worked days in Pittsburgh. Embarking on a course of militant opposition to slavery, he became involved in several racial improvement groups. Under the tutelage of two sympathetic physicians he achieved competence as a doctor's assistant as well as in dental care, working in this capacity in the South and Southwest (1839).
Returning to Pittsburgh, Delany started a weekly newspaper, the Mystery, which publicized grievances of blacks in the United States and also championed women's rights. The paper won an excellent reputation, and its articles were often reprinted in the white press. From 1846 to 1849 he worked in partnership with the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, where they published another weekly, the North Star. After three years Delany decided to pursue formal medical studies; he was one of the first blacks to be admitted to Harvard Medical School and became a leading Pittsburgh physician.
In the 1850s Delany developed an overriding interest in foreign colonization opportunities for African Americans, and in 1859–60 he led an exploration party to West Africa to investigate the Niger Delta as a location for settlement.
In protest against oppressive conditions in the United States, Delany moved in 1856 to Canada, where he continued his medical practice. At the beginning of the Civil War (1861–65) he returned to the United States and helped recruit troops for the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, for which he served as a surgeon. To counter a desperate Southern scheme to impress its slaves into the military forces late in the war, in February 1865, Delany was made a major (the first black man to receive a regular army commission) and was assigned to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to recruit and organize former slaves for the North. When peace came in April he became an official in the Freedmen's Bureau, serving for the next two years.
In 1874 Delany ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor as an Independent Republican in South Carolina; thereafter his fortunes declined. He was the author of The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered (1852).
Martin Delany: Pittsburgh's Forgotten Hero of the Underground Railroad and Civil War
By Samuel W. Black
Curator of African American Collections
Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center
There are many famous heroes of the Quest for Freedom, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but one of the most important figures has gone relatively unheard of: Pittsburgh's own Martin Delany.
Delany was the first African American field officer in the United States Army, serving in the Civil War. He was also considered "the chief superintendent" of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.
Historic Marker-Downtown Pittsburgh
Name: Martin R. Delany
Region: Pittsburgh Region
County Location: Allegheny
Marker Location: 5 PPG Place, 3rd Avenue and Market Street, Pittsburgh
Dedication Date: May 11, 1991
Marker Text: A promoter of African-American nationalism, Delany published a Black newspaper, The Mystery, at an office near here. He attended Harvard Medical School, practiced medicine in Pittsburgh, and was commissioned as a major in the Civil War.
Behind the Marker: Although not nearly so well known today as great nineteenth-century African-American leaders like Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington, Delany was an influential figure during his lifetime whose ideas and interest in Africa helped prepare the way for later black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.
Delany was the child of free black parents who lived in western Virginia. Racist attacks eventually drove the family across the Mason-Dixon Line to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Delany arrived in Pittsburgh as a young man in 1831.
He studied medicine under local doctors and opened his own practice as a "cupper and leecher," someone who bled patients in what was then considered necessary treatment for good health. In 1850, Delany applied to Harvard Medical School with seventeen letters of support from area doctors, gathered by Washington County abolitionist Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne. He attended only for a few months until white students forced his dismissal. "We have no objection to the education and elevation of blacks," the students claimed, "but do decidedly remonstrate against their presence in College with us."
An eloquent writer, Delany published his own newspaper, The Mystery, and also published a newspaper called The North Star with Frederick Douglass during the late 1840s. He wrote several political books and novels. Delany was active in Pittsburgh's Underground Railroad. He worked closely with other prominent members of Pittsburgh's abolitionist movement, including Reverend Lewis Woodson, a barber, educator and minister; John B. Vashon, described as the richest black man in Pittsburgh; and entrepreneur John Peck, an advocate of equal rights. Through the influence of Reverend Woodson, Delany became committed to the cause of equal education.
In the years prior to the Civil War, Delany journeyed to Africa and England to explore opportunities for colonization. Ultimately returning to the United States, Delany chose instead to stay and fight for the emancipation of slaves. Abraham Lincoln called Delany "this most extraordinary and intelligent black man" and appointed him as the first black major in the United States army.
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