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Charles Town honors native son

August 14, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A group of Charles Town residents gathered here recently to honor a Charles Town native considered one of the greatest black thinkers of his time, although he was mentioned little in U.S. history.

Local scholars, black leaders and government officials gathered at the Star Lodge Masonic organization on South Lawrence Street on Aug. 7 to unveil a monument commemorating Martin Robinson Delany.

Delany worked with other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass during the slavery era, but he sometimes alienated them about his thoughts regarding slavery.

Delany believed there was no hope for African Americans in the United States, and he called for blacks to return to Africa, where he planned to establish a cotton industry that would undersell the cotton industry in the U.S.

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Delany, who was born in his grandmother's house near the corner of North and Lawrence Streets in 1812, was also one of the first black doctors to graduate from Harvard Medical School, the first African-American field officer in the U.S. Army and the author of numerous publications and books about slavery and black issues.

Although relatively unknown in historical accounts, he has been remembered through monuments in Pittsburgh, Ohio and Canada, places where he worked, said Jim Taylor, a longtime Charles Town resident who has spent much time studying local African American figures like Delany.

The marker at the Star Lodge highlights Delany's life and includes quotes by famous people such as Abraham Lincoln, who said, "do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary man."

"I sort of feel like the spirit of Delany can finally rest in peace. This was very significant to me as an individual," said Taylor.

Hanna Geffert, director of Shepherd College's Oral History Project, said Delany was ignored in history because of his strong nationalist beliefs. He also took people by surprise with his articulate, intelligent character, said Geffert, whose work has concentrated on local black history.

"He never bowed his head to anyone," said Geffert.

The monument in Charles Town was dedicated in an afternoon ceremony that included participation by Jim Tolbert, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, Mayor Randy Hilton and other dignitaries.

Delany was one of five children in his family, and when he was 11 years old, his family moved to Chambersburg, Pa., after they were persecuted for teaching their children to read and write. Later in his life, Delany wrote about the horrors of slavery in his semi-fictional novel, "Blake: The Huts of America," and in 1859 helped to put together a treaty allowing blacks to return to Africa. He also attended a 1858 convention in which John Brown talked about his plans for an armed insurrection, although Delany did not support the abolitionist's ideas.

Delany was also active in newspaper publishing and reconstruction era politics.

The celebration of Delany's life is part of an ongoing effort locally to document black history.

Taylor just finished a 60-page book that traces the lives of other local black figures through the years. "Africans in America and the Lower Shenandoah Valley" tells the stories of people like Jimmy Winkfield, a longtime Charles Town resident who was the last black man to win the Kentucky Derby. The book also tells about Thomas Laws, a black slave from Berryville, Va., who crossed Confederate lines during the Civil War to help Union forces gather information about Southern troops, said Taylor.

"Around here, the history of African Americans has never really been written. I know there are some of us who are really interested in digging through history," said Taylor.

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