In Celebration of Martin R. Delany
by Taki S. Raton
Tuesday, April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War between the North and the South. Fought over a span of four years, this conflict began April 12, 1861 and ended April 8, 1865.
According to Frances Myers in Iowa Sate Daily.com, the Civil War claimed the lives of more than 625,000 people. Hundreds of events, commemorations, re-enactments and special ceremonies were planned around the country on this April 12 in honor what is considered a “milestone” in American history.
Negroes at that time were eager to join this engagement believing that it would be the war that would lead to their emancipation. But racial prejudice prevented Blacks from serving, not even to save the Union. By the mid-1860’s, however, the increasing incidents of run-away slaves, the declining number of white volunteers and the growing need of the Union Army for soldiers resulted in the July 17, 1862 Second Confiscation and Militia Act allowing the enlistment of Negro troops.
Sharing a February 1992 notation in “Social Education,” by the end of the Civil War, an estimated 179,000 Black men served in the Union Army comprising 163 units and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Negroes comprised ranks in the artillery as well as the infantry and additionally performed all noncombat support functions such as cooks, chaplains, guards, laborers, nurses, carpenters, scouts, steamboat pilots and surgeons.
Black women who could not formally join the military served as nurses, spies and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman who is recorded to have scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. There were 80 Black commissioned officers and by the war’s end, 16 Black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor. This valiant listing would include First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty, First Sergeant Alexander Kelly, Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood, Private James Gardiner, and Sergeant Major Thomas R. Hawkins.
But among all of the Black heroic figures that would emerge from this era, there is none more outstanding than Martin Robinson Delany.
“His was a magnificent life, and yet, how many of us have heard of him?” writes W.E.B. DuBois in the July 25, 1936 edition of the Pittsburg Courier.
Delany was born May 6, 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia to the slave Samuel Delany and a free woman, Pati (Peace) Delany who risked her life making sure that young Delany would learn to read. As a child, he heard from his grandmother, Graci Peace the stories of his African grandparents who had been captured, kidnapped and brought to America.
Fifty-three years following his birth, Delany would be meeting with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Citing a passage from Victor Ullman’s 1971 work, “Martin R. Delany – The Beginnings of Black Nationalism,” Lincoln shared this suggestion after a February 8 meeting with Delany shortly after 8 a.m. at the White House. Said Delany to Lincoln:
“I propose, sir, an army of Blacks, commanded entirely by Black officers, except such whites as may volunteer to serve; this army to penetrate through the heart of the South, and make conquest, with the banner of Emancipation unfurled, proclaiming freedom as they go, sustaining and protecting it by arming the emancipated…keeping this banner unfurled until every slave is free, according to the letter of your proclamation.”
Delany added in his comments to the President that “You should have an army of Blacks commanded entirely by Blacks, the sight of which is required to give confidence to the slaves, and retain them to the Union, stop foreign intervention, and speedily bring the war to a close.”
After the meeting, Lincoln wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton saying of Delany, “Do not fail to meet this extraordinary and intelligent Black man.”
Seventeen days later on February 25 Ullman records, Delany did have a scheduled meeting with Secretary Stanton who had already been counseled by the President on his vision. After a few brief words, the secretary asked Delany: “Will you take the field?” In reply, Delany said, “I should like to do so as soon as possible,” as quoted by Ullman noting archived letters and official government documents.
Stanton proposed to commission Delany “at once” and send him South “to commence raising troops, to be commanded by Black officers, on the principles you proposed, of which I most highly approve.”
The following day February 26 was a Sunday, but “the business of war went on as usual.” Delany was asked to report to Stanton at 11 a.m. for his commissioning. An audience had assembled as news that a Black man was to be commissioned apparently spread through the War Department. In his address to the gathering as recorded by Ullman, Stanton said:
“Gentlemen, I am just now creating a Black field officer for the United States service…Major Delany. I take great pleasure in handing you this commission of ‘Major’ in the United States army. You are the first of your race who has been thus honored by the government; therefore much depends and will be expected of you. But I feel assured it is safe in your hands.”
Delany was handed his official orders from the War Department the following day Monday, February 27, 1865 personally by Major General Rufus Saxton, a Union Army Brigadier general who received the Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Harpers Ferry fought in 1862, September 12th to the 15th.
Before his military career began, Delany had many titles. As a student, he had studied medicine at Harvard, published a newspaper, became a practicing physician, was an explorer, lecturer, thinker and as cited the first Black field officer in the U. S. Army. In 1852, he had written a book entitled “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered” where he urged Negroes to emigrate to Latin America or Africa.
In 1861, he published the official “Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party” which he led in 1859. He would later be the first of his day to document the major accomplishments and contributions that Blacks have made to world civilizations in his 1879 title “Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color.”
He worked with Frederick Douglass who founded the “North Star” paper in Rochester, New York, December 3, 1847. Douglas handled the business end while Delany traveled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky lecturing, reporting and collecting subscriptions for the newspaper. The “North Star’s” slogan: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”
But as Ullman would position, many were the titles earned and given to Delany during his lifetime, “but the title he demanded and honored most was simply – “Man”.
An esteemed orator of his day, the author lends passage of an 1854 Delany speech where Delany posits:
“Let no intelligent man or woman, than, among us, be found at the present day, exulting in the degradation that our enslaved parents would gladly have rid themselves, had they had the intelligence and qualifications to accomplish their designs. Let none be found to shield themselves behind the plea of our brother bondsmen in ignorance; that we know not ‘what to do’ nor ‘where to go.’ We are no longer slaves, as were our fathers, but freemen; fully qualified to meet our oppressors in every relation which belongs to the elevation of man.”
To his audience, he asked the question some 157 years ago (as almost valid for today) – “Will we transmit, as in inheritance to our children, the blessings of unrestricted civil liberty, or shall we entail upon them, as our only political legacy, the degradation and oppression left us by our fathers.”
In a November 1861 address to a committee of the African Civilization Society, he appealed to his audience that: “In God’s name, must we ever be subordinate to those of another race both in as well as out of Africa? Is subordination our normal condition? Must we either be abject slaves, the personal property of the Caucasian, or the submissive drudges of their social industrial element, ever ministering as domestics to their pride and arrogance? Is it true that we are not to be permitted anywhere to govern ourselves, but must have white rulers? Have we no other destiny, no other social and political relations in prospect as an inheritance for our children? It is for us to determine whether or not this shall be so.”
And speaking of our children, Delany’s observation of the Negro youth of that period would indeed be very well applicable today:
“The youth now coming up, especially those just emerging into manhood, are fearfully delinquent in that which constitutes decency, civility, politeness, and even good manners – in all of those traits the prerequisites of a good and wholesome state of society. Moral and literary societies are totally neglected by the young people…What a fearful state of society is this, and yet there appears to be no influences at work, either temporal, moral nor religious – either in the church or out of the church brought particularly to bear upon it to remedy the evil. That here is a fault lies somewhere there is no doubt.”
He adds that the parents and leaders in society “have greatly neglected their duties” and that a call should be made out to them “in the name of virtue and morality, to look well to the character of the young people.’
The nearest date to this Ullman passage is 1849. We find ourselves now 162 years later in 2011 expressing exactly the same sentiment.
The author further shares that Delany was convinced, and later did prove to his own satisfaction, that he was a descendant from African royalty.
There was no doubt in Delany’s mind, writes Ullman, that “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall haste to stretch out her hands unto God once more.” He believed himself to be “one of these princes of legitimate descent.”
This article’s heading “To Be More Than Equal” is borrowed from the Martin R. Delany home page website assembled by Jim Surkamp with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the George Washington Carver Institute. It was a fitting descriptor for a Black man who was the first to “demand” – not “appeal” for Black freedom and equality for the very simplest of reason, cites Ullman – “because ‘I am a Man.”
“I am a Man” notes the author meant “solely and exclusively that he ‘must’ enjoy all of the favors or suffer all of the pains of being a man. To Delany, that was the First Commandment. Says Ullman:
“It was this unequivocal stand that made enemies and friends, fierce opponents and stalwart followers. It is true that his arrogantly asserted beliefs won over few whites, but if did win the respect of all. And Delany perhaps had a good reason for his expression. He had read the ancients and very few of his day, of any color, had done the same. There had been great Black civilizations.”
Frederick Douglas said of him: “I thank God for making me a man simply, but Delany always thanks him for making him a Black man.”
And Delany himself told his people in an 1849 edition of the “North Star”:
“Be thou like the first apostle –
Be thou like heroic Paul;
If a free thought seek expression,
Speak it boldly – speak it all!
Face thine enemies – accusers
Scorn the prison, rack or rod;
And if thou hast truth to utter,
Speak and leave the rest to God.”