From Martin Delany to Marcus Garvey

“My duty and destiny are in Africa, the great and glorious land of your and my ancestry, I cannot, I will not desert her for all things else in this world, save that of my own household, and that does not require it as it will thereby be enhanced.”

Martin Delany

Martin Delany died on 24 January 1885 two years before the birth of Marcus Garvey. The revolutionary legacy of both men while coming from different eras of the struggle was defined by black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. The Pan-African movement has come a long way producing many revolutionary leaders advancing it, but what made Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey remarkable is their conviction and recognition of Africa as the rightful home for Black people globally and in their lifetime, both set out to make that dream a reality.

Martin Delany was born in 1812, 6 May Charlestown, Virginia (Now West Virginia). Being the child of a free mother and an enslaved father, His early upbringing involved his mother teaching him and his siblings how to read and write as Charlestown in 1819 had prohibited black children from attending schools. This made the Delany family flee to Pennsylvania in 1822, as his mother had been summoned to court for violating the law. Later, they moved to Pittsburgh in 1831 where he acquired basic medical education. In the early 1840s, Delany began his path to journalism in Pittsburgh, by starting a publication called The Mystery in 1843, and later co-edited the North Star with Frederick Douglass from 1847 to 1849. His early journey to political agitation was very similar to Marcus Garvey’s when he began to work with the African Times and Orient Review journal in 1913 England to talk about the oppression and the grievances of black people.

At the age of 38, Delany intended to complete his studies in medicine at the Berkshire medical school but was denied entry. In 1850 he turned to Harvard where he joined alongside two other Black men, Daniel Laing Jr and Isaac H. Snowden. However, they were never allowed to return for the second semester as some of the white students protested their presence outrageously claiming it would demean the medical school’s reputation.

The 1850s experiences greatly shaped Delany’s growing disenchantment with America, the humiliation at Harvard just added to the many injustices black people faced. The conditions got worse in 1850  when the fugitive slave law was enacted by the United States Congress. These events informed Delany ideas on Black emigration and Black nationalism, He remarked in his treatise on the conditions of Afro-Americans. 

“A people capable of originating and sustaining such a law are not the people to whom we are willing to entrust our liberty at discretion.”

The cruelty of slavery and colonization gave rise to Black and white abolitionists and anti-slavery movements, but Delany differed with many including Fredrick Douglass, white abolitionists, and the Black-white coalitions for Black Americans. The reality of the oppression and segregation of Black people provided little hope for solutions within America. For Delany, black people needed a cultural awakening through the knowledge of their own history. A solution was a return to Africa their original home— Africa was for Africans. To this effect, Delany drafted the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland, Ohio in August 1854. 

The Convention laid down Delany’s ideas on Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. The document decried institutional racism supported by all political parties and the American constitution that only provided liberty to white people. To actualize the emigration of his people, Delany set out on his journey to Africa on 24 May 1859. He went to the Yoruba land (Nigeria), Lagos, and later to Liberia where he stayed for 39 days. He was impressed with Africa’s economic potential and the possibility of Black people’s self-determination. However, when he returned to America in 1861 to begin his recruitment of Afro-Americans, there were forces against him within America and Africa to frustrate the efforts of settling Afro Americans in Africa. Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society was determined to make sure he didn’t succeed in Africa as it was a threat to colonialism and Europe’s conquest of Africa. Also, different emigration movements were mushrooming and fragmented without clear coordination.

The Delany dream was not achieved in his lifetime but his conviction in Africa remained unmatched. He would later join the military and serve for three years. His military career came to an end in 1868- the same year Congress adopted the 14th Amendment. Delany had fought his entire life for his people while placing Africa at his focal point. No leader before him had done it, yet that was not the end of the road for Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, it was just the beginning.

While Garvey emerged in the 20th century, his oratory skills and eloquence resemble Delany’s and became critical in his organizing and mobilizing. Equipped with journalism skills and charisma, Garvey revamped Black nationalism. He was committed to race pride, racial equality, and racial economic independence. 

Africa was as important to Garvey as it was to Delany. To fulfill the dream, the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) first division was formed in May 1917 in New York. The organization represented the largest mass movement in African-American history with over 2 million members in the USA alone and several chapters worldwide. With the same conditions of institutional racism, despair and segregation still persisting, Garvey turned to Africa as the solution, believing it was futile to fight for racial integration and equality in America. He firmly proclaimed the “Back to Africa” movement through UNIA.

In the Negro World News paper, Garvey wrote about the Return to Africa in 1922 and asserted:

“It is hoped that when the time comes for American and West Indian Negroes to settle in Africa, they will realize their responsibility and their duty. It will not be to go to the natives, but it shall be the purpose of the Universal Negro Improvement Association to have established in Africa the brotherly cooperation which will make the interest of the African native and the American and West Indies Negro one and the same, that is to say, we shall enter into a common partnership to build up Africa in the interest of our race.”

Garvey’s philosophy encompassed nation building by black people in their ancient homeland of Africa, economic self-reliance, and celebrating the African past while encouraging African Americans to be proud of their heritage. While Delany was able to go to Africa, Garvey was not able to ever visit Africa but established the Black Star Line challenging white domination of the maritime industry and possibly being a link between African and Afro-American travelers.

Like the Delany era challenges, Pan-Africanism had its enemies within America and Africa. Garvey’s political organization UNIA soon found itself with problems through infiltration by the FBI, opposition from W.E.B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP. 

Internal contradictions also weakened the movement as the government authorities used every means to destroy it. Garvey was later arrested for alleged mail fraud. He was incarcerated and deported to Jamaica stifling the growth and spread of UNIA. Garvey died on June 10, 1940, but by this time the ground was ripe for revolutionary Pan-Africanism to take the course in every major black movement of the 20th century, both in Africa and the Americas. The struggle was to continue, in his words: 

“All of us may not live to see the higher accomplishment of an African Empire-so strong and powerful, as to compel the respect of mankind, but we in our lifetime can so work and act as to make the dream, a possibility within another generation.”

In 1945, the Pan-African Congress in Manchester brought African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah who took pride in Garvey together with other African leaders. This convening was key to bringing independence to African Countries from European colonialism while intensifying the ground for the Civil rights era in America. The journey had begun with Martin Delany and was amplified by Marcus Garvey.

Additional Reading:

Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910. Edwin S. Redkey