Martin Delany (1812-1885): To Be More Than Equal
By Jim Surkamp
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Martin Robison Delany had within him a great President - but had no followers because he was too far ahead of his time, this brilliant, confident, take-charge, jet-black man who rebuked a slave-smitten nation, armed with his African roots and Methodist drive.
This moral engine of a man had a motto: "Act in the living present - but act! Face thine accusers, scorn the rack and rod, and if thou hath truth to utter, speak the truth, and leave the rest to God.”
Born in Charles Town to a freed black family, Delany went on to become a Harvard-educated doctor; author of four weighty books; leader of his own, year-long scientific expedition to West Africa’s Niger River Valley; the first black field officer in the U.S. Army; the co- editor of "The North Star" (which he shamed Frederick Douglas into starting); inventor; father; husband; and, probably the most important black man in South Carolina in the pivotal election of 1876.
He rose before the world's most prestigious scientific body in 1860 in London, faced the United States' ambassador, coolly pointing out after pleasantries to the chair: "I am a Man" - fighting words that cleared the room and headlined newspapers worldwide, behavior typical only for him.
No wonder Abraham Lincoln, after basking in Delany's presence early one February morning in 1865, exclaimed in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: "Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man." Lincoln's meeting a year before with the better-known leader of black Americans, Frederick Douglas, was hardly so positive.
So we all share W. E. B. DuBois' deep puzzlement expressed to a reporter from the "Pittsburgh Courier" in 1936: "His was a magnificent life, yet why is it we know so little of him?"
Delany moved so quickly with the times, he never aligned himself with one institution, that could have kept alive his memory. His letters were lost in a fire destroying Wilberforce College’s library in Xenia, Ohio. Delany lambasted leaders of the white-run abolitionist movement for keeping blacks out of leadership positions; while Douglass demurred. The nearly perfect absence of any mention of Delany in the five volumes of "Frederick Douglass' Papers" had its reasons.
Delany fought for radical reforms after the War wearing the uniform of a Union Major in South Carolina, while Douglass accepted a post-mastership in the federal government – a contrast in courage that cooled their relationship further.
Routinely abandoned from behind and deceived in front, Delany always grabbed the next risk and shook it, saying things that caused headlines and riots. He has the unique distinction of having been pursued by an angry, white mob in Ohio for saying one thing; and then, twenty-five years later, being pursued by an angry, black mob in South Carolina for saying another. “Speak the truth and leave the rest to God!”
Obnoxiously opinionated and sure on his face he was, but while selflessly serving a movingly pure and fiery guidance - always and constantly. You never find him with a hand in the till or calling white black.
I came to know this forgotten seer one letter and keystroke at a time, when I typed by hand some four hundred pages of Delany's writings and what others wrote about him. I got to know him, layer-by-layer, as I built a web site about him. I came to almost hear, as my hands scrambled in bursts for hours over the computer keyboard, his lion heart beating Yoruba missives and Methodist hymns.
Martin Delany was born May 8, 1812 in Charles Town, one of five children to Patty Delany, a freed black, and Samuel, who would buy his own freedom.
He grew up hearing stories of the founding fathers, because the town was created by resident Charles Washington, George's brother. His grandmother, Graci Peace, owned their house and, like Patty, was a seamstress and washerwoman. Nightly she taught Martin in story form his Yoruba origins and instilled the family tradition to refuse the lash of any man’s whip.
According to his biography written in 1868 by Frank Rollin (a nom de plume of Frances Rollin), Delany's paternal grandfather was killed for refusing to be whipped. And his father, Samuel, who worked on a farm in Middleway adjacent to the first sizeable land purchase of young George Washington, nearly got himself killed by forcibly preventing his overseer, most likely one "Edward Violett," from whipping him.
One day a traveling peddler, named Rankin, came through town selling pewter and knick knacks, when he exchanged with Patty Delany a small book called "The New York Primer for Spelling and Reading," a popular book for teaching reading and writing. State law forbade persons of color to learn to read and write.
Her children taught each other to read under the arbor in their back yard. Soon, crudely written travel passes began turning up in the hands of enslaved blacks in town. About that same time, Samuel had faced off with his overseer and tore Violett's clothes off (reportedly eight times) as Violett tried to give him a whipping. Samuel was finally knocked unconscious by a thrown rock and jailed.
As the town constable inveigled Patty's children to admit to forging the travel passes, town banker, Randal Brown, advised the respected Patty Delany to flee to the North and arranged for the sale of Graci Peace's parcel. Ostensibly on a weekend trip to next of kin, the Delanys, one day in 1823, slipped into Maryland near Williamsport and then on to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and lasting freedom. Samuel, raising money, perhaps from the sale of Graci Peace's property, bought his freedom and joined them.
The family chose gifted Martin to achieve on the grander stage of life. When he was nineteen, he set out on foot for Pittsburgh to become a barber and laborer. He had already read of Africa and heard Grandma Graci's stories of his grand father, Shango - her husband - who returned to Africa on the grounds of having royal blood. And he resolved on that trek to Pittsburgh to someday visit Africa.
Physicians noticed his skills and trained him to be a cupper and leecher, adding to his knowledge.
In 1839, he made a journey into the Deep South to New Orleans, Arkansas and parts of Texas, accompanying one of these physicians. Delany later described an unforgettable scene - which he pointedly foot-noted as actual in his later novel "Blake: The Huts of America" - of a young boy trained by the cue of his overseer's whip lash to entertain a crowd, alternately, by dancing, barking, laughing, singing, praying, and cursing. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which she wrote with very little first-hand knowledge of the South, infuriated Delany into writing "Blake" as a reply. This novel, about a traveling insurrectionist, was the subject of a PhD dissertation in 1980 by Gloria Horsley Meachem. She concluded that "Blake" more accurately depicted the antebellum South than either of two, much better known works: Herman Melville's "Benito Cerreno" and Stowe's albeit stirring piece of propaganda.
His vast life could not prepare Delany for the final act of his drama, which left him a man with a faith only in a Sweet Hereafter, the final strut in his faith in America, the land of the free, kicked away. That destiny played so cruelly on all his dearest hopes is disquieting. We are left with a man so great, fallen like massive stone, being swallowed by a tragic sunset whose fading vision is stirred only by the faint murmuring of Ghanian drums. What was it?
Major Delany threw considerable support and speaking efforts to Wade Hampton, the Democratic candidate for Governor in South Carolina in 1876. Hampton won by the slimmest margin. Governor-elect Hampton then sat on a special commission that chose Rutherford Hayes as the winner in a dead-heat election for the Presidency - in exchange for the removal of Federal troops from South Carolina. In short, Delany inadvertently served his own worst nightmare.
The much lived, care-worn Delany turned for Ohio to be a doctor one last time and put his children through school - with what little spirit was left in him.
In 1880, he stood on the Charleston dock as the ship, the "Azor" - full of people - set sail for Africa, just like before, to build the Pilgrim Kingdom. But only after they honored him as the one who inspired them with hope. He waved until their ship of hope shrunk on the horizon. His heart went with them.