10 Things To Know About Martin Delany, Father Of Black Nationalism

Written by Ann Brown
By Autumn Keiko

Many people have not heard of Martin Delany. But they should. He was a vital figure in the anti-slavery movement from before the Civil War and after. He is considered the  “father of Black nationalism.” Born Charles Town, West Virginia, in 1812 to an enslaved father and a free mother. He died in Xenia, Ohio on January 12, 1885.

“I believe Delany is second only to Frederick Douglass in significance and impact as a Black leader,” John Stauffer, a history professor and anti-slavery expert at Harvard University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

During his life Delany held many roles. He was an African American abolitionist, author, physician, Black Nationalist, and army officer. 

Delany believed every people should control their own destiny.

“Delany argued that blacks should leave because in order to achieve their rights, they had to form a majority in society,” Richard Blackett, the Andrew Jackson professor of history at Vanderbilt University, told the Post-Gazette.

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Education Mattered

Delany’s mother, Pati, wanted to make sure he was educated and was about to read and write. She taught her children to do so. It was actually against the law to teach Blacks and his mother was cited for violating state laws against literacy instruction for black children. She moved the family so her children could study.

“Delany was educated in Chambersburg until 1827, when he had to go to work. Four years later he left for Pittsburgh, walking the entire way, which was his home for the next twenty five years. When he arrived in Pittsburg, Delany became a student at a school operated by the Rev. Lewis Woodson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” the Black Past reported.

Man of Medicine 

In 1850, he entered Harvard Medical School to complete his formal medical education. He was one of the first three Black men admitted to the school but left after one semester when white students protested. Delany used the title of “doctor” and practiced medicine in Pittsburg.


He trained in medicine with the help of two of the leading white physicians, and by 1837 he was working as a doctor. He ran an ad in the Pittsburgh Business Directory that read: “Delany, Martin R., Cupping, Leeching and bleeding.”

Military First

Delany was commissioned a Major in the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops Regiment, making him the first line officer in U.S. Army history. 

The Underground Railroad & The Black Press

Delany was involved in the Underground Railroad and established an abolitionist newspaper called “The Mystery,” in or around 1843. It is said to be the first Black newspaper west of the Alleghenies. “‘The Mystery was published for four years in Pittsburgh, and was one of the only papers to survive a devastating fire in 1845 that destroyed a third of the city,” the Post-Gazette reported.

On Equality

Delany is quoted as saying: “If we treated everyone we meet with the same affection we bestow upon our favorite cat, they, too, would purr.”

Black Nationalism

In 1852, Delany published the first full-length statement of black nationalism, “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered.” In it he claimed that “even abolitionists would never accept Blacks as equals and thus the solution to the Black condition lay in the emigration of all African Americans back to Africa,” the Post-Gazette reported.

Destiny Of Blacks

In “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,” Delany wrote:

“Let no visionary nonsense about habeas corpus, or a fair trial, deceive us; there are no such rights granted in this bill, and except where the commissioner is too ignorant to understand, when reading it, or too stupid to enforce it when he does understand, there is no earthly chance, no hope under heaven for the colored person who is brought before one of these officers of the law.

“We are slaves in the midst of freedom, waiting patiently and unconcernedly, indifferently, and stupidly, for masters to come and lay claim to us, trusting to their generosity, whether or not they will own us and carry us into endless bondage.”


Delany argued for emigration, first to Central or South America, later to Africa. He visited Africa twice to negotiate for possible land for settlements along the Niger River.

 “We are a nation within a nation, we must go from our oppressors,” he wrote. 

“However, none of his plans for Blacks to leave the United States came to fruition, and in 1856, he moved to Canada, where he would stay until after the Civil War began,” the Post-Gazette reported.

The Freedman Bureau

During Reconstruction began Delany was assigned to the Freedman’s Bureau in South Carolina. There he helped emancipated Blacks land jobs and urged some of them to move to Liberia in Africa.