Martin Robison Delany (May 6, 1812 – January 24, 1885) was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer, and arguably the first proponent of black nationalism. He was one of the first three black people admitted to Harvard Medical School.
Trained as an assistant and a physician, he treated patients during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, when many doctors and residents fled the city. He worked alongside Frederick Douglass to publish the North Star. Active in recruiting blacks for the United States Colored Troops, he was commissioned as a major, the first African-American field grade officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War.
After the Civil War, he worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in the South, settling in South Carolina, where he became politically active. He ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor and was appointed a Trial Judge. Later he switched his party loyalty and worked for the campaign of Democrat Wade Hampton III, who won the 1876 election for governor.
Delany was born free in Charles Town, Virginia (present-day Charles Town, West Virginia) to Pati and Samuel Delany. Although his father was enslaved, his mother was a free woman, and Martin took her status under Virginia’s slave laws. Both sets of Delany’s grandparents were African. His paternal grandparents were of Gola ethnicity (from modern-day Liberia), taken captive during warfare and brought as slaves to the Virginia colony. Family oral history said that the grandfather was a chieftain, escaped to Canada for a period, and died resisting slavery abuses.
Pati’s parents were born in the Niger Valley, west Africa, and were of Mandinka ethnicity. Her father was said to have been a prince named Shango, captured with his betrothed Graci and brought to America as slaves. After some time, they were given their freedom in Virginia, perhaps based on their noble birth. Shango returned to Africa. Graci stayed in America with their only daughter Pati. When Delany was just a few years old, attempts were made to enslave him and a sibling. Their mother Pati carried her two youngest children 20 miles to the courthouse in Winchester to argue successfully for her family’s freedom, based on her own free birth.
As he was growing up, Delany and his siblings learned to read and write using The New York Primer and Spelling Book, given to them by a peddler. Virginia prohibited education of black people. When the book was discovered in September 1822, Pati took her children out of Virginia to Chambersburg in the free state of Pennsylvania to ensure their continued freedom. They had to leave their father Samuel, but a year later he bought his freedom and rejoined the family in Chambersburg.
In Chambersburg, young Martin continued learning. Occasionally he left school to work when his family could not afford for his education to continue. In 1831, at the age of 19, he journeyed west to the growing city of Pittsburgh, where he became a barber and laborer. Having heard stories about his parents’ ancestors, he wanted to visit Africa, which he considered his spiritual home. Delany and three other young black men were accepted into Harvard Medical School but African Americans were not accepted into the school after white students reportedly petitioned the school to exclude non-white applicants.