CHARLES TOWN – There are a number of interesting links between John Brown and Martin Delany, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year.
Delany – a Charles Town native and a prominent African-American abolitionist, author, publisher, doctor and civil war veteran – was part of a momentous assembly in the escaped slave enclave of Chatham, Ontario, Canada at which Brown, along with a number of individuals who would later participate in the raid on Harpers Ferry, and other participants drew up the constitution for a state dedicated to the eradication of chattel slavery.
“This is a part of history we very seldom hear about. I didn’t hear about it myself until earlier this year,” said Jefferson County NAACP Chairman George Rutherford, who was in attendance Monday for an address on Delany given by local author Bob O’Connor at the newly renovated Fisherman’s Hall.
Delany was born in Charles Town, then a part of Virginia, in 1812. He grew up in the town, though his family was forced to flee to Pennsylvania after authorities learned that he had learned to read, a jail-able offense for a black man at that time.
Delany moved in 1856 to Chatham where more than one-third of all Canadian blacks. The town was unofficially known as the headquarters of the Negro race in Canada, O’Connor said. Many of these blacks were former slaves who had successfully escaped from the United States. The town was also a magnet for abolitionists, both black and white.
African-American flight to Canada was spurred by the 1857 Supreme Court decision, which held that northern states were bound to return escaped slaves to their southern masters.
“They weren’t safe when they crossed into the North, because there was always a chance that they might be taken back,” O’Connor said.
Meanwhile, Brown, who had long been involved in the guerilla war between pro-slavery and abolitionist militias known as “Bleeding Kansas,” had begun to formulate a plan to expand the armed struggle against the institution of slavery.
This plan, explained O’Connor, involved adding a new terminus to the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves reach safety. Brown hoped to bring many of these slaves to Kansas, where they could be recruited to join his armed forces, rather than continuing to move them into Canada.
“It is men that I want, not money. Money I can get plentiful, but no men. Money can come without being seen, but men are afraid of identification with me. Though they favor my measures, they are cowards,” said O’Connor, quoting Brown.
In 1858, Brown, along with several future participants in the raid of Harpers Ferry, traveled to Chatham to seek out Delany with the hope of setting up a constitutional convention establishing a formal government – one which O’Connor called “a kind of military dictatorship,” which Brown himself was expected to head – dedicated to fighting southern slavery.
Delany agreed to participate in the convention and act as its chairman. While both Delany and Brown shared a strong commitment to ending slavery, they nonetheless clashed during debates over the constitution and Brown’s plans.
“At some point during the convention, Chairman Martin Delany told the gathering that Brown’s plan would ‘fail, not having the least chance of giving trouble to the slaveholders,’” O’Connor recounted. “Brown leapt to his feet and said, ‘Gentlemen! Dr. Delany is afraid. Don’t let him make cowards of all of you.’”
“Dr. Delany replied… ‘Captain Brown does not know the man of whom he speaks. There exists no one in whose veins the blood of cowardice courses less freely, and it must not be said, even by John Brown of Osawatomie,” O’Connor read. Osawatomie refers to a large battle between John Brown’s anti-slavery forces and a pro-slavery group from Missouri during which Brown’s heavily outnumbered force inflicted numerous casualties before being forced to withdraw.
O’Connor also noted that the constitution would later play an important role in 1859 at Brown’s trial in Charles Town, where he was charged with treason for attempting to overthrow the federal government. Prosecutors would argue that the constitution was meant to replace the U.S. Constitution.
“However, that was not the intention of the provisional constitution,” O’Connor argued. “In fact, he wanted to establish an independent community within and under the government of the United States, but without the sovereignty of a state compact, which would be similar to the Cherokee Nation of Indians, or the pact that the Mormons had.”
O’Connor closed by noting his considerable respect for Delany, who was one of the first African Americans admitted to Harvard and was the first black line officer in the U.S. Army.
“While many would agree with President Lincoln in saying that Martin Delany was ‘a most extraordinary and intelligent black man,’ I would go one step further in saying Martin Delany was a most extraordinary and intelligent man, and arguably the most important person to ever call Charles Town his home,” O’Connor said.
A birthday celebration for Delany will be held in downtown Charles Town, across from the library, this Friday from 6 to 8 p.m., rain or shine. The celebration will focus on the theme of health, honoring Delany’s work as a doctor.