Religious belief in the African American experience is sometimes taken for granted, as an assumed given. Because Africans in America have nothing but their faith in God, many have clung to it like a life preserver in the middle of an ocean – you are alive, yes, but any significant help might never come. Nonetheless, there are some who have warned to look for freedom in a practical sense; to not rely too much on the unseen when basic needs are not being met. Martin D. Delany is one such individual. Delany was a practical man, believing God, but also knowing that men and women had to fight for theirs on Earth instead of expecting to be saved by some unseen power. The following is a brief survey Delany’s life and struggle during antebellum and postbellum America, of particular concern is Delany humanistic approach towards religion and survival.
Though Delany was born in the South – Charles Town, Virginia – during the antebellum period (1812), he was not born in to servitude. Being born in the South as a person of African descent and not being born as chattel is quite an anomaly. To clarify, Delany was born to an enslaved father and a free mother, such a dynamic under Virginia law meant that he and his siblings were free as per the condition of the mother. Delany’s family moved to Northern Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, at a fairly young age. He was a bright young man, started training as a physician’s assistant in his teenage years. Interestingly, his medical training was somewhat of a trial by fire as he was immersed in the medical sciences during a cholera epidemic. Because of his skills and work ethic, Delany was accepted into Harvard Medical School, however because of outrage by racist students, he and several other African American students were not allowed to attend the college. Instead, he remained in Pittsburgh and trained in the medical arts with his mentor Dr. Andrew McDowell.
Delany’s family had a direct connection to the African continent, a fact that was never lost on him as he developed into a man. Delany’s mother was freewomen, however her parents were taken directly from the Continent. They were Mandinka from the Niger Valley and they were careful to pass knowledge of their family history down orally, never forgetting who they were or where they were from and ensuring that Delany would never forget either. Delany’s father as well was born to parents who had a direct connection to the Continent. They were Gola, from Liberia, a land that was later designated to be a refuge for emigrating Africans from the United States. Also, a land that Delany was destined to know intimately. Delany was very proud of his lineage and that pride directly impacted and shaped his understanding of nationalism and heritage.
Delany was a pragmatist, but he was still a religious man. In Pittsburgh, he became heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an active pillar of the Black community. However, as a man of science he did not just rely on faith, he believed in action and involved himself intimately in community affairs. For example, during the cholera epidemic of the 1832 he worked closely with the disease and its victims providing critical aid to Pittsburgh’s black community. Further, being a pillar of the community and earning a notable reputation, he became involved with the politics of Pittsburgh. He also began attending political conventions and eventually founded a Black-controlled newspaper called The Mystery. As a publisher he earned the attention of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass gaining the support of abolitionist organizations throughout the North.
As history unfolded, Delany worked very closely with Douglass for the abolitionist cause (after Douglass and Garrison fell out over an ongoing dispute over the level of violence necessary for the movement). Together they founded the North Star newspaper, an anti-slavery periodical, out of Albany, New York, Douglass’s base of operations. As a duo they worked well together. Douglass handled the publishing and editing of the periodical, while Delany focused on lecturing and touring. The North Star was an important publishing effort by the African American abolitionists, however it was difficult for the duo to retain the support necessary to ensure it was as affective as possible. Eventually the periodical ran out of money and had to be abandoned. However, before the North Star project was scrapped complete, Delany was able to address significant issues related to the plight for America’s enslaved. In particular, the issue of emigration. For Delany the notion of emigration was extremely important; he never felt anchored to the US like some of his contemporaries, a likely result of his lineage.
Eventually Delany moved his family to Canada as a means of keeping them safe from would-be slave patrols and America’s unflinching racism. However, he was not just concerned about the well-being of his kin, he thought it prudent to get all enslaved Africans free from bondage by way of emigration. Nell Irvin Painter states: “Taking a sober look at race relations in the United States, Delany concluded that Afro-Americans should emigrate to Central or South American or to the Caribbean Islands, where they could become useful citizens and create a United States of South America.” Moreover, the strategy to emigrate may have been based in part on a Zionistic understanding of Black people’s status in America held by Delany. That is to say, Delany felt that Black people in America were a special, chosen people and as such were to move to hallowed lands through divine mandate.
Delany’s position on emigration was strong despite an over-arching sentiment that such an action was akin to colonization. Meaning, many African Americans opposed the idea of colonization or any method of removing African Americans from the US or forcibly uprooting an indigenous population from their rightful lands. Nevertheless, Delany organized emigration conventions in Cleveland, Ohio (1854) and Chatham, Ontario (1856) in order to begin laying the groundwork for that very act. At first Delany eyed South America and the Caribbean basin as likely destinations of America’s would-be emigrants, however by the third emigration convention (1858) Delany was looking for permanence on the African continent. Emigration to the continent was the central focus on the American Colonization Society, an organization Delany took issue with because it was controlled by whites. Despite this, Delany set his sites for Liberia as a possible home for African Americans much like the ACS; as such in 1859, Delany traveled to Liberia to begin the search for a new nation for the enslaved of the US.
The ability to turn a religion or belief system that was to suppress and oppress into one that provides a sense of self and agency is quite remarkable. Still, the ability to look within one’s self to find something that was taken from you – a sense of being and culture – and use that to survive and thrive, speaks to the endurance of the human spirit. Delany was a deeply religious man, but he always peppered his philosophy with a deep sense of humanism. African Americans had to make their own way in the world. Despite being the victims of white supremacy, it was still their obligation to reclaim what was taken and create a destiny worthy of fulfilling. Painter again states: “Even though he was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal church Delany castigate Afro-Americans for trusting in religion too fully. He believed that human affairs were regulated by three immutable invariable “laws of God”: the Spiritual, the Moral and the Physical. Black people erred by turning spiritual means toward moral or physical end, Delany said, but they should instead borrow a leaf from whites, who used wealth not prayer to improve life on earth.” Delany’s efforts to encourage African Americans to emigrate was not in the least politically pragmatic, however, his approach towards advancement through activism, advocacy and education as well as his posture towards community development and self-advocacy without the need of a deity’s guiding hand are critically important within African American historiography. Perhaps Delany’s philosophy presents the flutterings of early African American humanism as well as an opportunity for deep reflection on important of personal responsibility in human affairs.
 Frank A. Rollins. Life and Public Service of Martin R. Delany. (AMO Press, 1969), 14-17. Delany mother fought to ensure that her children were born free and remain that way.
 Robert Steven Levine. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Representative Identity. (UNC Press Books, 2003), 487.
 Frank A. Rollins. Life and Public Service of Martin R. Delany. (AMO Press, 1969), 14-17.
 Levine, Robert S., ed. Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader. (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 27-29.
 Ibid., 69-70
 Leon Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 152.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 156-157.
 Ibid., 152.