Martin Robison Delany was born free on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia, now within West Virginia. The youngest of five children, Delany was the son of a slave and grandson of a prince, according to family reports. Delany was home schooled by his mother at first but he continued his education in Pennsylvania, alternating with work to help support his family. When he was 19, he walked the 160 miles to Pittsburgh to attend the Bethel Church school for blacks and Jefferson College, where he studied Latin, Greek and classics. He also apprenticed with several abolitionist doctors to learn medicine.
In Pittsburgh, Delany became active in abolitionist activities, including leading the Vigilance Committee that helped relocate fugitive slaves, helping to form the Young Men’s Literary and Moral Reform Society, and joining the integrated militia to help defend the black community against white mob attacks.