Little Known Black History Fact: Martin Delaney

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  • Martin Delany was the first African-American commissioned as a major in the Army. The soldier was also a writer, editor, abolitionist, Harvard medical student, physician and judge.

    As the bicentennial birthday of Delany approaches, historians want the nationalist to be recognized as a man who shaped history. Martin Delany believed that ‘every person should be the originator of their own destiny.’ He was so fed up with American slavery and segregation that he negotiated a treaty with rulers in West Africa to allow the creation of a new black settlement.

    The Charleston, Virginia native was born to a free mother and slave father who risked their lives to educate their children. With his future ahead of him, Martin Delany studied medicine as an apprentice and opened a medical practice that specialized in cupping and leeching.

    In 1839, Delany toured slave country to observe the racism endured by his enslaved brothers and sisters. A few years later, Martin Delany joined the fight of Frederick Douglass through literature by publishing a newspaper in Pittsburgh called “The Mystery” then joined Douglass’ North Star publication in Rochester.

    By 1850, Delany successfully entered Harvard Medical School to continue his studies. However, he was booted out of the program after three weeks when white students petitioned for his removal. Angered by the discrimination, Delany recorded his frustration in another publication that insisted blacks immigrate to Africa for justice. In 1859, Martin Delany led a commission on a site visit to West Africa, looking for the best location for a new black nation along the Niger River.

    Delany’s next effort would be through the Union Army in the Civil War. In 1861, he returned to the U.S. and recruited thousands of blacks to serve in the Union. Four years later he met with President Lincoln and got approval to create an all-black Corps led by African-American officers. He was commissioned a Major in the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops Regiment and became the first line officer in U.S. Army history. His next stop was to run for Republican office. Delany ran for Lt. Governor against Richard Howell Gleaves. In 1874, Delany lost the election to Gleaves.

    Major Martin Delany left a legacy as the father of black nationalism before his death in 1885.

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