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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

February 5, 2013: Remembering Delany and Lincoln

[Last year, to honor Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—, I remembered amazing African American writers: Lucille Clifton, Harlem Renaissance authors, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and David Walker. This year, I’ll focus on complex and compelling historical conversations. Please share your suggestions for figures, histories, and other African American and American stories and memories for the weekend post!]
On one of the 19th century’s most impressive Renaissance Men—and his influential conversation with the president.
One of my founding and ongoing goals for this blog has been to highlight aspects of American history, including impressive and unique individuals, that we should collectively remember a lot better than we do. And I’m not sure any American fits that description better than Martin Delany. Taken at random, even a few of his individual accomplishments would stand out even if they were singular: one of the first three African Americans admitted to Harvard Medical School (although he was later forced to leave due to racist opposition from his fellow students), and one of the few doctors who remained in Pittsburg to treat patients during both the 1833 and 1854 cholera epidemics; a journalist and editor who published one of the first African American controlled newspapers in America, The Mystery; a political activist and one of the founders of black nationalism, as well as an author whose serial novel Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859, 1862) represented one of the most complex and important literary responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and the first commissioned African American field officer during the Civil War.
It’s the latter accomplishment on which I want to focus here, and more exactly both the long-term and proximate causes of Delany’s commission: his multi-year effort to gain an audience with President Lincoln to argue not only for African American troops (prior to the creation of the USCT units) but also and more importantly for African American officers to lead them; and his eventual February 1865 meeting with Lincoln, which resulted both in his successful argument for that plan and also his own commission as a Major, the first commissioned African American field officer in the Union Army. The details of both the effort and the meeting, including Delany’s own extended description of his conversation with Lincoln for his 1883 authorized biography, are captured at this excellent site, part of The Lincoln Institute project within The Lehrman Institute. Much has been made, and for understandable reasons, of Spielberg’s choice to leave Frederick Douglass out of his recent Lincoln—but I gotta say, I especially wish he had included Delany. The film spans January through April of 1865, so the dates would even line up!
What makes Delany’s meeting with Lincoln even more complex and compelling is that it represents one side of the double-edged mission of his life’s work. For much of his adult life, including his final public actions a few years before his 1885 death, Delany worked in support of the establishment and strengthening of separate African American nations in Africa, such as Liberia; he had, he often argued, become comvinced that white America would never give equality to African Americans, and that African colonization was thus the only practical option. Yet throughout the many decades of his advocacy for those efforts, Delany also worked tirelessly to improve the lives and communities of his fellow Americans—all of them, from cholera victims to Civil War soldiers to black farmers struggling in the postbellum South, and many many other groups and causes besides. Colonization has become, in many historical accounts, a caricature rather than a concept, just a more subtle form of racism; but while it certainly served that purpose for some supporters, as Delany proves it also could and often did exist alongside the most nuanced and impressive American and African American minds and perspectives. Yet at the same time, I can’t imagine a more American life than Delany’s—nor a more ideal American moment than his meeting with President Lincoln.
Next conversation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to these figures and this moment? Other Black History Month connections you’d share?

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