All the Power to Martin Delany

Published:July 15, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Martin Delany (Library of Congress American Memory Collection; Ohio History Center)The name of the publication is Encyclopedia Virginia, which assumes that the subjects of our articles are connected to the state in some way. Which is a safe assumption, of course, but those connections are more tenuous for some than for others. Take Martin R. Delany. Here’s an early draft of the introduction to our entry:

“Martin R. Delany was an African American abolitionist, writer, editor, doctor, and politician. Born in Charles Town, Virginia, he lived in Pittsburgh for years, very briefly attended medical school at Harvard University, and spent his later life in Charleston, South Carolina. Delany was the first black field officer in the U.S. Army, serving as a major during and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), and among the first black nationalists. A fiercely independent thinker and a wide-ranging writer, he coedited with Frederick Douglass the abolitionist newspaper North Star, which encouraged pride and community awareness among freed blacks. Later, however, he penned a manifesto calling for black emigration to Central America and authored Blake: Or the Huts of America (1862), a novel about a fugitive slave who, in the tradition of Nat Turner, organizes insurrection. Delany explored West Africa, dabbled in the politics of Liberia, served as a trial justice in South Carolina (a scandal landed him in prison), and, in 1874, lost election for lieutenant governor of South Carolina. Despite all this, Delany remains relatively unknown. ‘His was a magnificent life,’ W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1936, ‘and yet, how many of us have heard of him?’ His contributions have also tended to be pigeon-holed, with an emphasis on his more radical views (celebrated in the 1970s) and less attention paid to the extraordinary, almost whiplash complexity of his career.”

Wow. This guy was amazing, and one could write thousands of words. In the end, though, Delany’s only real connection to Virginia was having been born in a town that is no longer even within the state’s borders. So, a little grudgingly, we pared down both the introduction and the entry. Still, ours is longer than the encyclopedia entries for both South Carolina and West Virginia. Delany deserves it, regardless of our name.

For more on Delany check out the following: