Martin Delany: To be more than equal

You had to see far into the future to see his true reflection. That future – today — is really when we see and can appreciate Martin Delany’s prescience.

He rose before the world’s most prestigious scientific body in 1860 in London, faced the United States’ ambassador and said coolly and pointedly after pleasantries to the chair, “I am a man,” fighting words that cleared the room and filled newspapers worldwide with big headlines.

So here is this Virginia native son, Harvard-educated doctor; author of four weighty tomes; leader of a self-organized, year-long expedition to the Niger River Valley; arguably the first black field officer in the U.S. Army; co- editor of  ”The North Star;” inventor, father, husband – this moral engine of a man driven by the single motto: “Act in the Living present  –  But Act.”

It goes on: “Face Thine Accusers, Scorn the Rack and Rod, and if thou Hath Truth to utter, Speak the Truth and Leave the Rest To God.” 

“Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in a memo to Edwin Stanton after meeting Delany one morning in February, 1865.

Delany was born May 6, 1812 in Charles Town, one of  five “freed” children to Patty Delany, a freed black, and Samuel, who would buy his own  freedom. 

Her children taught each other to read under the arbor in their backyard. Soon, crudely written travel passes began turning up in the hands of enslaved Africans. Calling it a trip to see kin, the Delanys, one day in 1823, slipped away to Chambersburg in Pennsylvania, and freedom. 

He later wrote “Blake: The Huts of America,” about a traveling insurrectionist, a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Delany co-edited “The North Star” newspaper with Frederick Douglass beginning in 1847.

Building on his years of apprenticing with doctors in Pittsburgh as a cupper and leecher, Delany was accepted at Harvard Medical School. Protests from undergraduates forced three matriculated persons of color — one being Martin Delany — out, even though the faculty favored retention. 

Disillusioned, Delany wrote in 1852:  ”The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,” which chronicled many successful African-Americans and advocated for an effort by his people to organize their own resettlement in the homeland of Africa.

In 1858, John Brown sought out Delany, then a doctor in Chatham, Ontario, and Delany organized for Brown a secret convention to hear of Brown’s plan to create an independent state for former, enslaved persons. 

Delany recruited African men in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts and Illinois to fight as soldiers for the Civil War.  

His fateful meeting with Lincoln was a free exchange of ideas centering on Delany’s proposal to form a “Corps d’Afrique,” and was followed by Lincoln having him appointed as one of the very first African-American field officers, if not the first.

His first assignment while being promoted to the rank of major was with the freedman’s bureau for the coastal plantations in South Carolina.

Delany was shaken by the extent of graft in the state’s Republican Administration. He then caused a firestorm in 1876 for strongly backing for governor Wade Hampton, a Confederate major general, owner of plantations in several states, who demonstrated fairness. 

Hampton won by a slim margin. Then the tragedy that capped Delany’s long life: the new Governor-elect Hampton soon sat around a table of power brokers at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. to decide which of the two dead-heat presidential candidates would be president – Rutherford B. Hayes or Samuel Tilden.

They chose Hayes with Hampton providing a deciding vote and handful of electoral votes to Hayes.

In exchange Hayes, promised in writing to withdraw the occupation U.S. Army from the South. In the absence of the troop presence, unbridled violence gradually became the norm.

So Martin Delany waved in 1880 as another ship set sail from South Carolina’s Charleston harbor to Africa, until the ship of hope shrunk on the horizon. His heart went with them.

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