African Americans Forgotten in History: Martin Robinson Delany

Photo courtesy of Blackpast.org.

Angela Witherby, Staff writer

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Martin Robinson Delany, born in May of 1812, was the first African American field officer in the United States Army. He was a well-known abolitionist, and focused on the idea of Pan-Africanism, coining the phrase “Africa for Africans.”

Delany was one of the earliest black abolitionists that encouraged slaves to return to Africa after they gained their freedom. His mother was a freed slave, and fled from Virginia with her children to avoid re-enslavement after she was caught attempting to teach her children to read and write.

Delany and his mother traveled to Pennsylvania, and in 1833 he began an apprenticeship with a physician in Pittsburg. At the time, you did not need to be certified to practice medicine, and Delany soon opened his own practice, specializing in cupping and leeching. Delany was also a supporter of black newspapers, and in 1843 he started to publish a Pittsburgh newspaper, known as “The Mystery.” Later he began promoting “The North Star,” a paper published by his fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  

From 1859 to 1860, Delany led an exploration party to investigate the Niger Delta as a location for settlement for African Americans. During this time he had moved to Canada to continue his medical practice, but as the Civil War began, he returned to the United States to help recruit. He recruited for the famous 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. Delany served as a surgeon for the regiment.

Delany was commissioned as a major in the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops Regiment in February of 1865, becoming the first African American field grade officer in the U.S. Army.

When Reconstruction began, Delany was assigned to the Freedom Bureau, which helped millions of freed slaves and poor whites after the war,  in South Carolina. He then became active in politics, losing in a close race against for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina.

Delany was also an author, and wrote “The Principia of Ethnology” in 1879. The book featured concepts such as racial pride and purity.

In 1880, Delany moved to Ohio, where he spent the last five years of his life. Martin Robinson Delany died in Xenia, Ohio, on January 12, 1885.