On May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia (presently located in West Virginia), a baby boy was welcomed by parents, Samuel and Pati Delany. Named “Martin Robison”, he was the youngest of five children. From family accounts, it is shared that the parents of both Samuel and Pati were directly from Africa and brought to America to be enslaved. It is said that Martin’s paternal grandfather had been a chief of the Gola in present-day Liberia. In Life and Services of Martin R. Delany by Frank A Collins, it is recorded, via oral accounts, that he escaped slavery by fleeing to Canada. Martin’s maternal grandparents were of the Mandingo/Mandinka in the Niger Valley. His grandfather was said to have been a prince and it is believed that this royal status influenced their slaveowner to, ultimately, free Martin’s grandparents. His grandfather returned to Africa and his grandmother remained with their daughter, Pati, in Virginia.
Because Virginia’s slave laws stated that the status of children were that of their mother, the Delany children were not slaves, as Pati was free. Pati was exceptionally skilled as a seamstress and Samuel, who was enslaved, was an accomplished carpenter. After several attempts to enslave their children, coupled with threats of punishment because Pati was teaching her children to read and write from The New York Primer for Spelling and Reading, Pati and Samuel knew they had to leave the state. She and their children were able to quickly move and in 1822, settled in Chambersburg, a city in Pennsylvania, a free state. Samuel joined them the following year, as it took that long to purchase his own freedom.
Because schools for Blacks in Pennsylvania only went as high as elementary levels, Martin became an autodidact. In 1831, when he was nineteen years old, Delany walked 160 miles to live in Pittsburgh. In this bustling city, he attended a school for Blacks that was set up in Bethel A.M.E. Church, the oldest Black congregation in the city. Under the pastorate of Reverend Lewis Woodson, the school was funded by the African Education Society. Because so many Blacks had to work to support themselves and loved ones, classes were held in the evening. Delany later studied courses, including Latin and Greek, in a classical education at Jefferson College.
During his time in Pittsburgh, he worked during the day as a laborer and a barber. However, his life changed when he began an apprenticeship in 1833 with Dr. Andrew N. McDowell, a White physician and abolitionist. The previous year, a cholera breakout impacted the country. Delany learned the techniques of fire cupping and leeching, which were the modern practices used to treat many illnesses of that era. He continued to study medicine under the guidance of abolitionist physicians, including Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne and Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam, and later opened his own successful medical practice in Pittsburgh.