Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885) is rarely acknowledged in the historiography of African American education (Anderson, 1988; Bullock, 1967; Butchart, 1980). He is not counted among African American educators, perhaps because he neither featured prominently in the establishment of schools nor philosophized at length on Black education. On the contrary, he built his reputation largely on his nationalist activities and on his extensive publications which advanced his political theories and values. Yet, few 19th-century African Americans matched Delany's concern for the education of his people. In all the phases of his life, he held up education as an indispensable factor. Without it, he warned, Blacks had a very slim chance of becoming meaningfully and effectively free and elevated in U.S. society. Though Delany did not write any lengthy works on education, he infused his political writings and speeches with commentaries on its significance and role. His frequent critiques of 19th-century African American educational practice underscored certain ideals and values that he insisted should inform any educational scheme designed for Blacks. For this, he certainly deserves recognition as an educator.
Few 19th-century African Americans felt the pinch of educational deprivation as painfully as Delany. He was born a "free Black" in Charlestown, Virginia (now in West Virginia) at a time when the education of Blacks was a crime under Virginia law. Growing up in what appeared to be an integrated neighborhood instilled in young Delany a false sense of security and comfort. He mixed freely with the White children of his neighborhood. He was, however, rudely awakened early in his life to the ugly realities of his second-class citizenship when he attempted to help himself to the Virginia school system. Upon accompanying his White playmates to school one day, he was refused entry to the classroom and informed that education was for Whites only (Sterling, 1971).
Delany's opportunity for an education came when his parents acquired a copy of the New York Primer and Spelling Book from an itinerant peddler. The family kept the treasured acquisition a secret and held nocturnal study sessions. Soon, every member had attained literacy. In their excitement, however, the Delany children threw caution to the wind and began to "play school" and openly recite the lessons. News of their accomplishments soon spread, and the family became the subject of much gossip and curiosity. Persecution seemed imminent. On September 22, 1822, the Delanys were forced to flee Charlestown. They resettled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Rollin, 1868).
Chambersburg was little better than Charlestown. Despite a more permissive atmosphere, racism persisted there. Young Martin was, however, able to continue his elementary education in the public school system, where he encountered values that were meant to induce acceptance of the prevailing perception of Blacks as inferior. Yet, instead of acceptance, Delany grew skeptical, assuming an anti-orthodox posture to societal norms and developing an uncanny disposition to venture beyond established limits. Of the liberal arts, he enjoyed history the most, particularly accounts of African history, most of which, to his dismay, depicted Africa as a continent of barbarism (Sterling, 1971). The persistence of derogatory images of Africa strengthened his determination to seek the truth.
Upon completion of his primary education, Delany's drive for knowledge came to a screeching halt as Chambersburg made no provisions for Black education beyond the elementary stage (Hutton, 1930). Dissatisfied, Delany left for Pittsburgh in July 1831 to continue his quest for a meaningful education. There, he encountered a thriving, energetic, and equally determined community of free Blacks, mostly migrants like himself, all of whom were propelled by the desire to conquer ignorance and degradation. He enrolled in the Cellar School of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where his exposure to the arts and humanities continued (Rollin, 1868). …