Martin Delany

Martin Delany was born in the southern United States, moved to Pennsylvania in his youth, and was the first Black American to enter Medical School at Harvard.  He was forced to leave before completing his studies because white students refused to work alongside him.                Delany became a medical doctor by apprenticeship and was also a journalist, novelist, explorer, anthropologist and military officer during the Civil War. He believed that African Americans should control their own destiny.  He stressed strong identification with Africa as a homeland and wanted Black people to become independent from the white majority, and to depend on their own resources in order to elevate themselves and their culture.  Delany at first believed that African Americans could work within the system in order to transform it. The dominant society demanded acculturation and adopting the “white man’s ways.”  Martin Delany would emerge after the Civil War as the new leader of the Black homeland identity movement. Prior to the Civil War, African Americans still believed that it was possible to have a connection with a “historic homeland” and an “adopted homeland.”

Delany became active in the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society and worked in the Underground Railroad helping enslaved Africans escape bondage. He married Catherine Richard, the daughter of a well-to-do Black butcher and named his children after Black historic figures: Toussaint L’Ouverture, (the Black leader of the Haitian Revolution); Alexander Dumas (the French novelist who had African ancestry); Ramses II, Saint Cyprian, Faustin Soulouque, Charles L. Redmond, and their daughters, Ethiopia and Halle.

Martin Delaney’s writings in the 1850s clearly revealed the mixture of motives and methods that characterized early Black Nationalism.  He wanted to end slavery, and put Black people in a position to be eligible for citizenship.  He also looked toward Africa as the hope and promise where African Americans could produce cotton and undercut the economy of the American South.  He sought to build Black nations, and wanted to build Black business enterprises. In his words: “Africa, to become regenerated, must have a national character, and her position among the existing nations of the earth will depend mainly upon the high standards she holds compared to them in her moral, religious, social, political and commercial relations.”

Delaney argued that a Black nation should be built with only Black resources and other Blacks held similar views.  Edward W. Blyden and Alexander Crummell immigrated to Liberia to start the advancement of the Black nationhood.  Africanus Horton attempted to build Black nationhood from his base in his native Sierra Leone.

In 1852, Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States in which he articulated his views on Black Nationalism. He believed that only in a country without white people could Black people flourish.  “We are a nation within a nation.”  He went on to state that people of African descent should abandon the United States and migrate to Central America, South America, or Hawaii.  Delany was now getting involved in the “Back-to-Africa” movement and he became one of the key figures in organizing the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland in 1854.

Delany and Robert Campbell, two competing Black nationalists, left independently of each other to survey the Niger region of West Africa for possible African American settlement. Delany, in this search for a place for African Americans, first arrived in Liberia where the reception was courteous, but not enthusiastic because he was known as an opponent of the American Colonization Society that preceded him.  As Delany traveled through Nigeria in the Egba-Yoruba region from Lagos to Ilorin, he never lost sight of his mission—to develop an African American nation in the heart of Africa, and thus establish a permanent linkage for Africans and their descendants in the New World. Delany’s mission was clearly a search for a homeland that would serve as the foundation for his identity as a Black man.  Frederick Douglass, when speaking about Martin Delany, said: “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thanks Him for making him a Black man.”

In his Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploration Party (1861), Delany declared that the continent of Africa is “our fatherland.” He argued that its regeneration required the development of a “national character,” and that Africa should be for the African race. Next to Paul Cuffe, he is probably the first Black Nationalist.