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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

"Slavery is over, and shall never return again." - Martin Delany takes a stance on Reconstruction

As the American Civil War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, Major Martin R. Delany, formerly of Pittsburgh, found himself a comfortable position within the newly formed Freedman's Bureau while serving with the 104th U.S.C.T. in the northern sub-district of Port Royal, South Carolina. In February, Delany reportedly had met with Abraham Lincoln to discuss the recruitment of African American troops in the Federal army. His meeting with the President made such an impression that Delany was commissioned a Major in the Union Army, making him the first African American field officer in the nation's history.

Martin Delany in uniform, serving as Major of the 104th U.S.C.T. (NPS)

Born in 1812 to a free mother and enslaved father in Charles Town, Virginia, Delany eventually moved to Pittsburgh at the age of nineteen. His experiences in the bustling city at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers helped shape Delany's voice within the abolitionist community, including Delany's founding of The Mystery - the first African American-operated newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains. This, of course, preceded Delany's work with Frederick Douglass on the North Star in 1847.

The Mystery - December 16, 1846 (Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

By the summer of 1865, Delany found himself in the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry, overseeing the welfare of formerly enslaved peoples. As a Federal agent, Delany's responsibilities dictated certain behaviors and routines, however, his personal passions and beliefs launched Delany to a certain level of notoriety amongst fellow government personnel. In one particular case, Martin Delany delivered a powerfully insightful speech to former slaves on St. Helena Island - an event which instilled a sense of fear in the caucasian audience who attended Delany's demonstration. As noted by 1st Lieutenant Edward Stoeber of the 104th U.S.C.T., who was present, Delany's address was given within close proximity to the Brick Church, which had been built just a decade prior by the local slave population.

The Brick Church, St. Helena Island, South Carolina

The Brick Church, St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Detail on The Brick Church, St. Helena Island, South Carolina (Note: Fingerprints likely from an enslaved person who helped construct the church in 1855)

"July 28, 1865

Brevt. Maj. S.M. Taylor

Asst. Adjt. General


In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island yesterday morning, for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany, 104th U.S. Col. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th U.S.C.T., under orders of Col. C.H. Howard 128th U.S.C.T. Comd. Post.

The meeting was held near the Brick Church. The congregation numbering 500 to 600. As introduction, Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveholders and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says 'It was only a war policy of the government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South laid in the possession of the slaves. But I want you to understand that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence' (this he repeated twice).

He further says 'If I had been a slave, I would have been most troublesome and not to be conquered by any threat or punishment. I would not have worked, and no one would have dared to come near me, I would have struggled for life or death: and would have thrown fire and sword between them. I know you have been good, only too good. I was told by a friend of mine, that when owned by a man and put to work on the field, he laid quietly down, and just looked out for the overseer to come along, when he pretended to work very hard. But he confessed to me, that he never has done a fair days work for his master. And so he was right, so I would have done the same, and all of you ought to have done the same.

People say that you are too lazy to work, that you have not the intelligence to get on for yourselves without being guided and driven to the work by overseers. I say it is a lie, and a blasphemous lie, and I will prove it to be so. I am going to tell you now, what you are worth. As you know, Christopher Columbus landed here in 1492. They came here only for the purpose to dig gold, gather precious pearls, diamonds and all sorts of jewels, only for the proud Aristocracy of the white Spaniards and Portuguese, to adorn their persons; to have brooches for their breasts, earrings for their ears, bracelets for their ankles and rings for their limbs and fingers.

They found here Indians, whom they obliged to dig and work and slave for them but they found out that they died away too fast and cannot stand the work. So the whites could not stand the work. In course of time, they had taken some blacks (Africans) along with them, and put them to work, they could stand it, and yet they (the whites) say they are superior to our race, though they could not stand it. At the present day in some of the Eastern parts of Spain, the Spaniard there (having once been conquered by the black race) have black eyes, black hair, black complexion. They have Negro blood in them! The work was so profitable which those poor blacks did, that in the year 1502, Charles the V gave permission to import into America yearly 4000 blacks. The profit of those sales was so immense, that afterwards even the virgin Queen of England and James the 1st took part in the slave trade and were accumulating great wealth for the treasury of the government. And so you always have been the means of riches.

I tell you I have been all over Africa and I tell you that those people there, are a well driving class of cultivators, and I never saw or heard of one of our brethren there, to travel without taking seeds with him as much as he can carry and to sow it where ever he goes to, or to exchange it with his brethren. So you ought further to know that all the spices, cotton, rice, and coffee has only been brought over by you, from the land of our brothers.

Your masters who lived in opulence, kept you to hard work, by some cost contemptible being called overseer who chastised and beat you whenever he pleased while your master lived in some Northern town or in Europe to squander away the wealth only you acquired for him. He never earned a singled dollar in his life. You men and women, everyone of you around me, made thousands and thousands of dollars, only you were the means for masters to lead the idle and inglorious life, and to give his children the education, which he denied you, for fear you may awake to conscience. If I look around me, I tell you, all the houses on this island and in Beaufort, they are all familiar to my eye, they are the same structures which I have met in Africa. They have all been made by the Negroes, you can see it by their rude exteriors. I tell you they cannot teach you anything, and they could not make them because they have not the brain to do it. At least, I mean the Southern people: 'Oh the Yankees they are smart.' Now tell me from all you have heard from me, are you not worth anything? Are you those men whom they think, God only created as curse and for slave? Whom they do not consider their equal? As I said before, the Yankees are smart - there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones, if they are good they are very good. If they are bad, they are very bad. But the worst and the most contemptible, and even the worse than even your masters were, are those Yankees who hired themselves as overseers.

Believe not in these school teachers, emissaries, ministers and agents, because they never tell you the truth, and I particularly warn you against those cotton agents, who come honey mouthed unto you, their only intent being to make profit by your inexperience. If there is a man comes to you, who will meddle with your affairs, send him to one of your more enlightened brothers, who shall ask him, who he is, what business he seeks with you, etc.

Believe non but those agents who are sent out by the government, to enlighten and guide you. I am an officer in the U.S. Government and ordered to aid Genl. (Rufus) Saxton, who has only been lately appointed Asst. Commissioner for South Carolina, so is Genl. Wild, Asst. Comm. for Georgia. When Chief Justice Chase was down here to speak to you, some of those malicious and abominable New York papers derived from it that he only seeks to be elected by you as President, a white or a black one. I don't care who it be, it may be who has a mind to. I shall not be intimidated whether by threats or imprisonment, and no power will keep me from telling you the truth. So I expressed myself even at Charleston, the hotbed of those scoundrels, your old masters, without fear or reluctance.

Now I will come to the main purpose for which I have come to see you. As before the whole South depended upon you, now the whole country will depend upon you. I give you advice how to get along. Get up a community and get all the lands you can if you cannot get any singly. Grow as much vegetables, etc. as you want for your families, on the other part of land you cultivate rice and cotton. Now for instance, one acre will grow a crop of cotton of $90, now a land with 10 acres will bring $900 every year, if you cannot get the land all yourself, the community can, and so you can divide the profit. There is tobacco for instance. There are whole squares at Dublin and Liverpool named after some places of tobacco notoriety, so you see what enormous value your labor was to the benefit of your masters. Now you understand that I want you to be the producers of this country. It is the wish of the government for you to be so.

We will send friends to you, who will further instruct you how to come to the end of our wishes. You see that by so adhering to our views, you will become a wealthy and powerful population. Now I look around me and notice a man, barefooted covered with rags and dirt. Now I ask, what is that man doing, for whom is he working? I hear that he works for that and that farmer 'for 30 cents a day.' I tell you that must not be. That would be cursed slavery over again. I will not have it, the government will not have it, and the government shall hear about it. I will tell the government.

I tell you slavery is over, and shall never return again. We have now 200,000 of our men well drilled in arms and used to warfare, and I tell you, it is with you and them that slavery shall not come back again, and if you are determined it will not return again. Now go to work and in a short time I will see you again, and other friends will come to show you how to begin.

Have your fields in good order and well tilled and planted and when I pass the fields and see a land well planted and well cared for, then I may be sure from the look of it that it belongs to a free negro, and when I see a field thinly planted and little cared for, then I may think it belongs to some man who work it with slaves. The government decided that you shall have one third of the produce of the crops from your employer, so if he makes $3, you will have to get $1 out of it for your labor. The other day some plantation owners in Virginia and Maryland offered a $5 a month for your labor, but it was indignantly rejected by Genl. (Oliver Otis) Howard, the commissioner for the government.'

These are the expressions, as far as I can remember, without having made notice at the time. The excitement with the congregation was immense, groups were formed talking over what they have heard, and ever and more cheers were given to some particular sentences of the speech. I afterwards mingled with the several groups, to hear their opinions. Some used violent language, saying they would 'get rid of the Yankee employer.' 'That is the only man who ever told them the truth.' 'That now those men have to work themselves or starve or leave the country, we will not work for them anymore.'

Some whites were present, and listened with horror depicted in their faces, to the whole performance. Some said 'what shall become of us now' and if such a speech should be again given to those men, there will be open rebellion. Major Delany was afterwards corrected by Mr. Town, the Superintendent at that place, to the effect that the pay of laborers on this island is not 30 cents a day, but 30 cents for a task, and that a man can easily make from 75 to 90 cents a day. Major Delany then corrected himself accordingly, saying that he must have been misinformed.

My opinion of the whole affair is that Major Delany is a thorough hater of the white race, and tries the colored people unnecessarily. He even tries to injure the magnanimous conduct of the government towards them, either intentionally or through want of knowledge. He tells them to remember, 'That they would not have become free, had they not armed themselves and fought for their independence.' This is a falsehood and misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men. This is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the government.

By giving some historical facts and telling them that neither Indians nor whites could stand the work in his country, he wants to impress not the colored man with the idea that, he in fact, is superior not only in a physical view but also in intelligence. He says, 'believe none of the ministers, school teachers, emissaries, because they never tell you the truth.' It is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand, that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of this government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves. The intention of our government is, that all the men should be employed by their former masters as far as possible, and contracts made between them, superintended by some officer empowered by the government.

He says it would be the old slavery over again, if a man should work for an employer, and that it must not be. Does he not give a hint of what they shall do, by uttering, 'That if he had been a slave, etc.' Or by giving the narrative for the slaves who did not work for his master? Further as he says: that a field should show by its appearance by whom and for whom it is worked? The mention of having two hundred thousands men well drilled in arms: Does he not hint to them what to do? If they should be compelled to work for employers?

In my opinion by this discourse, he was trying to encourage them, to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain.

I am, Major, Very Respectfully Your obedient servant,

Edward M. Stoeber

1st Lieut. 104th U.S.C.T."

Major Delany's words resonated with those present in the audience on that summer day, regardless of skin color or social class. The period of Reconstruction in the post-war south had begun, and over the next several years Martin Delany would help usher in a new era in the American saga.

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