Heinz History Center honors 19th-century African-American leader and abolitionist | Pittsburgh City Paper

Heinz History Center honors 19th-century African-American leader and abolitionist

click to enlarge A life-size figure of Martin Robison Delany stands in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition at Heinz History Center.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah G. Dunlap
Martin Robison Delany figure at Heinz History Center

Considering his many accomplishments, it seems as though Pittsburgh should know of Martin Robison Delany, a Black activist who spent his formative years in the city. Born in 1812 in Charles Town, Virginia to a free mother and an enslaved father, he fought in the Civil War (becoming the highest-ranking African-American field officer in the U.S. Army at the time), went on to study a variety of subjects, and became what is considered by many to be the father of Black nationalism.

The Heinz History Center will pay tribute to Delany's life and work with a two-day academic conference described in a press release as examining "the legacy of one of the most influential African American leaders of the 19th century."

Presented by the center's African American Program, the symposium, taking place Fri., Aug. 26 and Sat., Aug. 27, will feature panel discussions with "scholars from across the nation who have studied Martin Delany and his influential life and legacy," including Tunde Adeleke, director of African American Studies at Iowa State University, and Richard J. Blackett, the Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.


With the theme "Before, During, and Beyond the Civil War," the symposium will focus on new research and examine "Delany’s literary publication, Blake, the emigration movement, politics, Black identity, and Delany in public history.

The press release points out that, while Delany grew up in Virgina, it was in Pittsburgh that he started on his path to activism. A free Black man in Pittsburgh, he became an "outspoken, unapologetic voice against slavery and rallied others to support Black nationalism." As the center points out, in 1843, Delany published The Mystery, the first African-American newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains, which "championed equality for Blacks and supported the abolition of slavery in other parts of the nation."

In Pittsburgh, Delany also studied medicine, even applying to Harvard Medical School. The Harvard Center for the History of Medicine reads that, when Delany applied in person to Harvard Medical School, he had "17 letters of recommendation from physicians in Pittsburgh and Allegheny, Pennslyvania, as well as three letters from clergymen, endorsing Delany's character and intelligence."

Martin Robison Delany Symposium: "Before, During, and Beyond the Civil War." Fri., Aug. 26-Sat., Aug. 27. Heinz History Center. 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. Also online. $10-50. heinzhistorycenter.org/events

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