Martin R. (Robison) Delany was born in Charles Town, Virginia in 1812 to an enslaved father and free mother. Delany’s mother relocated to Pennsylvania with her children in 1822. In 1833, he began a medical apprenticeship in Pittsburgh “and soon opened a successful medical practice in cupping and leeching” [1].

In 1843, Delany founded the African American newspaper The Mystery. He ran the newspaper from its founding until 1847, when he left it to join Douglass in co-editing The North Star. After spending a year and a half working with Douglass, Delany continued his medical training [2].

The intense racism at Harvard Medical School in 1850 forced Delaney to leave. Due to protests and petitions by white students, Delany “was dismissed from the institution after only three weeks” [3].

In 1852, outraged by his own treatment and that of fellow Black and African Americans, Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, in which he lamented the lack of citizenship rights for Black and African Americans [4].

A proponent of emigration, Delany organized and chaired the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1854. In 1856, Delany left the United States and settled in Chatham, Canada, “and worked there as a journalist and physician before the outbreak of the Civil War” [5], [6].

As an emigrationist, Delany asserted that certain “parts in the Americas and Africa [were] safer and more promising for a black future.” While living in Chatham, Delany “began to plan African American settlements in West Africa” [7].

Although Brown and Delaney had different views, Brown sought out Delany to plan the Chatham Convention and to attempt to form a council of free Black people, African Americans, and Canadians to “‘aid and countenance’ his activities.” Brown believed Delany would be able to help him organize both, and, indeed, Delany was instrumental in planning and organizing the Chatham Convention [8].

Delany served as Chairman of the convention. Delany along with others, “spoke in favor of the project and the plan [Brown’s Provisional Constitution and the Harpers Ferry Raid] and both were agreed to by general consent.” Delany also led the convention members in taking a vow of secrecy regarding the plans discussed: [9]

“Mr. Delany moved that the following parole of honor be taken by all the members of the Convention—‘I solemnly swear that I will not in any way divulge any of the secrets of this Convention, except to persons entitled to know the same, on the pain of forfeiting the respect and protection of this organization;’ which motion was carried” [10].

Delany was very active at the Chatham Convention, frequently proposing actions to be taken the Convention members:

“On motion of Mr. Delany, it was then ordered that those approving of the Constitution as adopted sign the same; whereupon all names of all the members were appointed” [11].

During the second session of the Convention on May 8, Delany nominated Rev. William C. Munroe for Convention President. During the last day of the Convention, May 10, Delany signed the Minutes [12].

Although Delany played a major role in organizing and contributing to the Chatham Convention, he did not participate in later events and actions, such as the Harpers Ferry Raid.

Due to the seventeen-month delay between when the raid was supposed to take place (the summer of 1858) and when it actually took place (October 1859), many Black activists who supported Brown had become more involved in their own activism. As Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson stated: “Prominent black abolitionists such as Delany, who aided in putting meetings together, became caught up in their own campaigns for emigration when plans for the raid were starting to mature” [13].

During the Civil War, Delany worked as a recruiter for the Union Army, enlisting “thousands of black men.” Delany himself also fought during the Civil War, “becoming the first black commissioned officer to serve in the military as a major in the Fifty Second US Colored Troops Regiment” [14].


[1] Butler, Gerry. “Martin R. Delany (1812-1885),” Black Past,

[2] Blake, Brandon. “Martin R. Delany,” Moonstone Arts Center,

[3] Butler, Gerry. “Martin R. Delany (1812-1885).” 

[3] Paul, Heike. “Out of Chatham: Abolitionism on the Canadian frontier,” Atlantic Studies, vol 8, no. 2, 2011, p. 169.

[4] Blake, Brandon. “Martin R. Delany.”

[5] Paul 176. 

[6] Geffert, Hannah N. “John Brown and His Black Allies: An Ignored Alliance,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 126, no. 4, October 2002, p. 598.

[8] Anderson, Osborne P. A Voice From Harper’s Ferry: A Narrative of Events at Harper’s Ferry. Boston: Printed for the Author, 1861, p. 10.

[9] Anderson 10. 

[10] Anderson11.

[11] Anderson 11-13.

[12] Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force And Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 120. 

[13] Jackson 155.