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Martin Delany’s 200th Birthday To Be Commemorated.

April 18, 2012 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( May 6, 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Martin Robison Delany’s birthday. Officials from the Jefferson County Black Preservation Society are looking to honor the descendants in various activities throughout this Bicentennial year.

Delany, born a free black man in 1812 it what was then Charlestown, Virginia (now Charles Town, West Virginia), is best known for being the first black line officer in the U.S. Army. But he is much more than that.

Delany learned how to read and write by sitting outside the classroom of his white friends in Charlestown. He was denied the right to learn by the Commonwealth of Virginia law that prohibited blacks from being educated. When authorities learned about him, they confronted Delany’s mother. Instead of going to jail, she fled with her son and other children to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

At various times in his life Martin Delany attended Harvard College to pursue a career in medicine, was a newspaper owner, an author, and was one of the country’s first black nationalists. He also was the organizer of the John Brown (the abolitionist) Constitutional Convention in Chatham, Ontario, Canada in 1858.

He proposed Negroes start their lives over in a new country perhaps in the West Indies or South America when he became convinced that would never get a fair shake in the United States. Delany’s book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States tells of his ideas to form that new country.

Delany met with President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War to suggest to the president that colored men be allowed to become soldiers in the Union army. President Lincoln sent a memo to Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of War, imploring Stanton to “Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.”

He was a recruiter for several USCT regiments including for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Volunteers. He was later named Major Delany, becoming the first black line officer in the U. S. Army.

In his later years, Major Delany became affiliated with Wilberforce University in Ohio. He died on January 24, 1885 and is buried near the school.

According to George Rutherford, the organization’s president and President of the Jefferson County NAACP, the group is commemorating Delany’s life with lectures, essay contests and other activities throughout 2012. (See the complete list below) Rutherford said Delany’s descendants will be honored during the African American Cultural Heritage Festival held this year August 17-19 in particular. “We will honor them at a reception Friday night. They will be featured in our parade on Saturday.” The organization has hosted similar descendants programs in 2006 for descendants of the Niagara Movement participants and in 2009 for the descendants of the John Brown raid participants.

Anyone who knows of a descendant of Martin Delany is urged to contact George Rutherford at or call him at 304-725-9610 or Gwenny Roper at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park at or call her at 304-535-6166.

The African American history of Jefferson County West Virginia cannot be separated from American history. The first African American free settlement in Virginia, John Brown’s raid, and the first Civil Rights meeting on American soil were all in this county. The Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society’s African American Heritage Trail brochure is available by calling (866) HELLO-WV or by emailing to

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