MARTIN ROBISON DELANY was born free on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), the son of Samuel and Pati Delany. Although a state law prohibited the education of black children, Delany and his siblings received informal schooling from a white man; when it was discovered that they were literate, the family was forced to flee to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In 1831 Delany went to Pittsburgh, where he continued his education with the Reverend Lewis Woodson and studied medicine with Dr. Andrew N. McDowell. He became politically active, joining the Abstinence Society and becoming executive secretary of the Philanthropic Society, which helped free blacks to settle in the North.
In 1843 Delany married Catherine A. Richards, with whom he had thirteen children, although four died in infancy. In 1847 he began editing the Mystery, one of the earliest black newspapers; later that year, however, he was forced to give up the editorship of the paper for financial reasons. He then joined with Frederick Douglass in editing the North Star, but his increasingly radical views on the place of blacks in American society led to a split with Douglass in 1849. In 1850 he attempted to pursue his medical studies, enrolling in the Harvard Medical School along with two other black students; but their mere presence was so disruptive that they were not allowed to return for a second term.
In the 1850s Delany began openly espousing black emigration to Africa. In his first polemical work, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, which he published at his own expense in 1852, he recommended an emigration of blacks to Central America. In 1854 he called a National Emigration Convention in Cleveland, at which he delivered a fiery speech, "Political Destiny of the Colored Race on the American Continent."
In 1856 Delany, evidently disgusted with the increasing oppression of blacks in the United States, moved to Chatham, Canada, where he practiced medicine. Here he continued work on his only novel, Blake; or, The Huts