Web site will detail life of neglected soldier

July 02, 1997


Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Ten years ago local historian Jim Surkamp was reading a book on Jefferson County history when a two-sentence paragraph on a county man he had never heard of piqued his interest.

Martin Robison Delany was born a free black in Charles Town, W.Va., in 1812, one block east of Washington Street near Asbury Methodist Church. An author, Delany was the first black field officer in the U.S. Army, earning the rank of major.

Surkamp, of Shepherdstown, who produces radio and video documentaries on local and regional history, decided that Delany needed to be remembered and that the best way to do so was to put his life works and biographical information on the Internet.


Delany apprenticed with physicians in Pennsylvania who recommended him to Harvard Medical School. Halfway through medical school, the students ousted him with the approval of the dean, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The students claimed that the presence of black students affected their education.

"He thinks like Thomas Jefferson does in a lot of ways," Surkamp said of Delany. "His motto is: speak the truth and leave the rest to God. He had the curious distinction of being threatened by a white mob in Ohio in 1847 and then by a black mob in South Carolina in 1875. I'm impressed."

In 1989, Surkamp and Jim Fisher of Charles Town received a $3,500 grant from the West Virginia Council for the Humanities to produce an audio production exhibit and teacher's manual on Martin Delany.

After that was completed, Surkamp said he saw this as a perfect use of the World Wide Web, "to plug an overlooked hole in American history." He said the website - which has content equivalent to about 500 book pages - will be publicized all over the country so that people can learn about Delany and teachers can download the information.

"The more you read about this man, the more impressed you are by his personal integrity and the more irritated you are by his absence in history books," Surkamp said. "He was saying things even abolitionists didn't like."

Delany's poems, speeches and excerpts from his books and essays will be available on the website.

This year Surkamp won an award from the American Association for State and Local History for his video documentaries on the history of Jefferson County.

The West Virginia Council for the Humanities gave Surkamp a $1,500 grant last spring to produce the website. He was sponsored by the George Washington Carver Institute. He said two of the institute's board members, Jim Tolbert and George Rutherford, backed him because they knew of Delany's importance to black history.

"He died of old age and a broken heart," Surkamp said of Delany. "He found the whole American dream was made of salt. He tried everything to win respect, but it failed almost every time."

Surkamp said a standard history of Jefferson County had Delany's name spelled wrong, and even his tombstone in Ohio has his name misspelled.

"It was the last and ultimate insult," he said.

The website will be available from the West Virginia University home page around the middle of July. Anyone interested in the address for the site should call Surkamp later this month at 304-264-4633.

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