During a very full life, Martin Robison Delany was a journalist, physician, lecturer, explorer, ethnologist, army officer, civil servant, trial judge, novelist, and organizer of emigration projects. Among his African American contemporaries, only the celebrated Frederick Douglass approached such creative activity.
The period from 1830 to 1865 was the great age of antislavery agitation in the United States and the first great age of African American writing. In both these movements, Delany was a moving force, working with Douglass, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, Harriet Tubman, James McCune Smith, James W. C. Pennington, and Samuel Ringgold Ward. His contributions are less well known than some of his fellow workers, perhaps because they are spread among so many fields of endeavor.
Delany was born to free parents in 1812 in Charles Town, in what was then Virginia. His schooling began at age ten when his family moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and continued in New York at the African Free School and then the Oneida Institute. Always bright, curious, and of academic bent, he was married and an active journalist by the time he entered the Medical School of Harvard—in what was to Harvard merely an experiment but was to him one of the formative experiences of his life.
From 1843 to 1847, Delany successfully published the newspaper The Mystery in Pittsburgh; thereafter, it was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Under the name The Christian Recorder, the newspaper is still published today. From 1847 to 1849, he was assistant and contributor to Douglass’s North Star, though he never moved to Rochester, New York, where the newspaper was edited. One reason he wished to stay in Pittsburgh was that during the later 1840’s, he was reading medicine there, in the manner of an apprentice, with two prominent physicians in preparation for medical school. Rebuffed by several schools in Pennsylvania and New York, he decided to try Harvard, whose dean was Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the later Supreme Court justice.
Spurred by Holmes, the medical faculty decided to perform an experiment. Provisionally, it admitted Delany (now approaching forty), two other black men (who...
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