[Home] [Book] [Expand] [Collapse] [Help]

Clear Search Expand Search

  --  GENEALOGY.   Table of Contents     CHAPTER III.

Rollin, Frank [Frances] A.
Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany



IN the recent struggle through which the nation has passed, like convulsions, sometimes, of certain portions of the physical world, old features and landmarks are swept away, and new features are apparent, developing on the surface, the existence of which very little, if anything, was heretofore known.

A class has been invoked into action, to whose sublime patience and enduring heroism the genius of poetry will turn for inspiration, while future historians, recognizing evidences of the true statesmanship which they have exhibited through the dark night of slavery, will place them amid the brightest constellations of our time. This class exhibited the same anomaly in the midst of slavery, that the slaves in a government whose doctrines taught liberty and equality to all men, and under whose banner the exile and fugitive found refuge, presented to the civilization of this century. They were an intermediate class in all the slave states, standing between the whites and the bondmen, known as the free colored; debarred from enjoying the privileges of the one, but superior in condition to the other, more, however, by sufferance than by actual law. While they were the say of the one, they were

the object of distrust to the other, and at the same time subject to the machinations and jealousies of the nonslaveholders, whom they rival in mechanical skill and trade. Prior to the rebellion these represented a fair proportion of wealth and culture, both attributable to their own thrift and energy. Unlike the same class at the North, they had but little, if any, foreign competition in the various departments of labor or trade against which to contend. Immigration not being encouraged at the South, as at the North, could not affect their progress, thus leaving all avenues open to the free colored, while they were excluded from the more liberal and learned professions. But if their faculties for accumulation were preferable to the same class North, there were influences always at work to deprive them of the fruits of their labor, either openly or covertly. On the one side were exorbitant taxes for various public charities, from the benefits of which the indigent of their race were deprived, and for public schools, to which their children were denied admittance. Business men found it in many instances impolitic to refuse requests for loaned coming from influential white men, under whose protection they exercised their meagre privileges, and the payment of which it was equally impolitic to press, nor were they allowed to sue for debts.

Thus their position in the midst of a slave community was altogether precarious, as they were looked upon as a dangerous element by the slaveholders. Their lives and material prosperity standing in direct contrast to the repeated assertions of the advocates and apologists of slavery, that they would, if free, relapse

into barbarism, or would burden the states in which they were found, for support. So marked and wide-spread had this class become in the Southern States, that it was a subject of general comment, but a few years before the rebellion, the almost simultaneous petitions to the various legislative bodies, to drive them from their homes, and in some of the states these were only baffled by the bribes resorted to by their victims. These continued aggressions succeeded, however, in driving large numbers to settle in the free states and the Canadas, notwithstanding the unmigratory tendency of southern races. There they remained until their listening ears caught the first note of the rebellion, as borne from Sumter's walls, and with all the holy tenderness which clusters around the national colored in the hearts of these men, they went forward to swell the Union ranks. For to them the cause was as sacred as that which inspired the crusaders of old.

There were others whose far-seeing visions, peering into futurity, beheld the balance of power held out to them, and remained awaiting the march of events not far removed, and at this time are recognized as the accepted leaders of the rising race.

Under this state of society was engendered a habitual watchfulness of public measures, making them tenacious of their rights and immunities in every community where they are found, and a peculiarly sensitive to the slightest indication of encroachments, which has resulted in developing in them a foresight and sagacity not surpassed in others, whose individual status is less closely allied with political measures.

From this class sprang the honored and scholarly

Daniel E. Paine, Bishop of the African Methodist Church,--that great religious body, the power of which is destined to be felt in America, and the influence of which to be circumscribed only by the ocean. The noble Vesey, of South Carolina, who sealed his devotion to the cause of freedom with his life, was of this class. Before the walls of Petersburg, these were among the gallant soldiers who gave battle to the trained veterans of Lee, and at the ramparts of Wagner they waded to victory in blood.

Amid these uncertain surroundings was the boyhood of Martin Delany passed. In childhood the playmate of John Avis, at Charlestown, in manhood, the associate of the immortal Brown of Ossawatomie, in a measure which ultimately resulted in rendering the name of the kind-hearted Virginian historic in connection with his illustrious captive.

With all the schools closed against them in Virginia, it was not until about 1818 that his brothers and sisters ever attempted to receive instruction.

With the vast domain of Virginia at this date, teeming with school-houses, attended by thousands of colored children, and instructed by white northern teachers, as well as those of their own race, the tuition of the Delany children forms a singular contrast.

The famous New York Primer and Spelling Book was brought to them about that time by itinerant Yankee pedlers, trading in rags and old pewter, and giving in exchange for these new tin ware, school books, and stationery. These pedlers always found it convenient and profitable, like wise, to leave their peculiar looking box wagon to whisper into the ear of a

black, "You're as much right to learn to read as these whites;" and looking at their watches, had a "snigger of times left yet to stay a little and give a lesson or so." These "didn't charge, only in gim me what ye mine to." It was under such covert tuition, and with such instructors, in the humble home of Pati Delany, that the young Martin, together with his brothers and sisters, were taught to read and write.

This stealthy manner of learning, while they were unconscious of the cause, had the tendency of making them more attentive and eager, perhaps, than otherwise, for their tuition was not of long duration before the elder boys were able to read intelligently, and instruct the younger children, we are told. And after a time almost improbable had elapsed, so well arranged were the plans for imparting instruction, that the authorities, who are always so vigilant in inspecting or prying into the movements of the free blacks, "that dangerous element" of the South, were so completely baffled, that not only the smaller children were reading and spelling, but the larger boys were actually writing "passes" for the slaves of their neighborhood.

As their minds developed, all restraint was thrown aside, and the lessons given and recited heretofore in whispers, were now being recited to each other aloud. Leaving the little room in which they were accustomed to assemble, with throbbing hearts and eyes beaming with joyous anticipations to receive those early lessons, unconscious of the hair-suspended sword of southern justice above their innocent heads, they dared to " play school ," like other children, under the shaded arbor of their mother's garden. This soon attracted the attention

of their neighbors. Surrounded as they were by whites, it was a hazardous and "overt act."Major Delany describes the "situation" thus: "In the rear, adjoining, on the opposite street, was Downey's; on the left, adjoining, Offit's; on the right, immediately across the street from Hogan's, was the Long O'nary, where Bun's great school was kept, the largest school in the town except Heckman's Seminary." Thus the progress of Pati Delany's children was soon made the gossip of the day, and attracted thither continually curious inquirers, eager to see and hear negro children spell and read.

It chanced one day, in the midst of their recitations, their mother being absent, they were interrupted by a man inquiring the name of their parents, then of each child, taking it down in the mean time in his book. Being satisfied, he rode away. These children, unconscious of the purport of the visit, joyfully related it to their mother on her return. Great was their astonishment to see the expression of deep dejection that over-shadowed the features that but a few moments before had shone with happiness as she greeted them. Her only response to their information was a long-drawn sigh, for too well she knew that visit foreboded trouble. In a few days her fears were realized. A man called at the house, and delivered a summons to her, to the effect that it was understood that she was having her children taught to read, in direct violation of law, for which she should answer before a court of justice. The devoted mother's consternation can be well pictured, when we recall the justice extended to the noble Prudence Crandell, in Connecticut, for teaching negro

children to read. It followed, in her fears, that she resorted to the concealment of the books from her children; but the sole cause of offence to the majesty of Virginia's laws, the knowledge, and the insatiable thirst for further acquirement, could neither be hidden nor taken from them.

This violation of law, and the inevitable consequences, were soon bruited around the country. Neither sympathy or advice was extended to the courageous woman, whose only crime was wearing a dusky skin; but instead, the jeers and scowls which the vilest culprit receives met her on every side. Mingled with their imprecations could be remembered the significant expressions, "A wholesome lesson!" "It will do that proud, defiant woman good!" "She always made pretensions above a negro." Suits were constantly entered, and failed. She was persecuted by all, with one noble exception -- that of Randall Brown, a banker, who often advised her to leave the place. Finally, in September, 1822, under the pretext of moving to Martinsburg, she left Charlestown for Chambersburg, Pa, where residing for fifteen years, her children were enabled to continue their studies, with "none to molest or make them afraid." There, for several years, they attended school, securing such advantages as the country schools of those days afforded.

After some time had elapsed, Delany's parents' means being limited, he was compelled to leave school. He then went to Cumberland County, about two years after he had left school, to work; but, becoming dissatisfied with his prospects, he returned to Chambersburg, to obtain the consent of his parents to go to Pittsburg,

where facilities for obtaining an education were superior to those of his home. On the morning of the 29th of July, 1831, we date the first bold and determined move on his part to himself for the herculean task which he had marked out for himself. Alone, and on foot, the young hero set out for Pittsburg, with little or no money, and consequently few friends. Crossing the three grand ridges of the Alleghany, he soon reached Bedford. Here, employment being offered to him, he remained for one month. Never losing sight of his resolves, he now turned his face towards Pittsburg, in which city the foundation of his fame afterwards rested.

  --  GENEALOGY.   Table of Contents     CHAPTER III.