Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) proved to be a man of many talents and interests. He was an abolitionist, Civil War army officer, explorer, editor, author, physician, politician and, to many, the “father of black nationalism” in the United States. “Do not fail to meet this most extraordinary and intelligent black man,” President Abraham Lincoln advised Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in early February 1865.

He was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), to Pati and Samuel Delany. His father was a slave until 1823. Because it was a crime in Virginia to educate “people of color,” the Delany family moved to Chambersburg, Franklin County, after authorities discovered Pati Delany schooling her five children in 1822.

Delany resumed his education in Chambersburg and furthered his studies in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a barber, laborer, and physician’s assistant. Turned down by several medical schools, he was accepted in 1850 by Harvard Medical School, which dismissed him after only one term because white medical students protested his admission. Although many doctors fled a cholera epidemic in Pittsburgh four years later, Delany stayed and organized black nurses. In August 1854, he published his manifesto, Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent, regarded as the foundation for American black nationalism.

He published an abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery, from 1844 to 1848, and co-edited The North Star with Frederick Douglass. His novel Blake: Or The Huts of America (1859), one of the first by an African American, is considered accurate portrayal of antebellum blacks. He detailed his 1859 exploration of Africa in Official Report of the Niger River Valley Exploring Party.

During the Civil War, Major Delany – the Union Army’s highest-ranking black officer – recruited thousands of black soldiers. Following the war, he was assigned to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Hilton Head, South Carolina. After unsuccessful bids for a position in the Liberian government in 1869 and for lieutenant governor of South Carolina in 1874, he became a trial justice. In 1876, he was convicted on a trumped up charge of “defrauding a church,” but South Carolina’s Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain pardoned him. Extreme racists gained control of South Carolina’s legislature and they recalled Reconstruction reforms and removed Delany from the bench in 1877.

Delany turned to helping establish a “Black Israel” in Africa, but circumstances forced him to give up his lifelong dream. The drowning of his son Charles in 1879, tuition bills for two sons at Wilberforce University (of which he was a faculty member), and his wife Catherine working as a seamstress to help make ends meet, prompted him to remain in Charleston and practice medicine. He died of consumption on January 24, 1885, in Xenia, Ohio.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected two state historical markers commemorating Martin Robison Delany, the first in Pittsburgh, in 1999, where he practiced medicine, and the second, in 2003, in his former hometown of Chambersburg.