National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

According to my family’s oral history, the abolitionist Major Martin R. Delany is my great-great-great-grandfather, father to my great-great-grandfather Dennis Dollary DeLaney, who was born in South Carolina in 1836. According to the daughter of my second great-uncle, the Rev. William Y.D. DeLaney (Dennis Dollary’s grandson), an original lithograph of Martin R. Delany has hung prominently in the homes of my kin for years.

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I do have copies of correspondence between the Rev. DeLaney and the U.S. War Department requesting information about Major Delany, which I will send you. You will note the letter states that Major Delany was the father of Dennis Dollary (Dority) DeLaney and was the Rev. DeLaney’s grandfather. Please note that Dennis DeLaney’s middle name is spelled “Dority” in the letter to the U.S. War Department; however, I have always heard it spoken as “Dollary.”

My research indicates that Major Delany lived and worked in South Carolina for several years as an adult. He served in the military there and also worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina. Major Delany was 24 years old when my third great-grandfather Dennis Dollary DeLaney was born in August 1836 in South Carolina.

I am very interested in trying to determine if there is a relationship between Martin R. Delany and my family. —Mary L. Gentry

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Your family story centers on Martin Robison Delany, a famous African-American physician and abolitionist who touted emigration as the path to African-American empowerment and is frequently referred to as “the Father of Black Nationalism.” He famously said of African Americans, “We are a nation within a nation.” He was also the first African-American line field officer in the U.S. Army, serving during the Civil War. Much has been written about him, so the best place to start is by determining if it was likely that Martin Robison Delany was in the right place at the right time to be your Dennis Dollary/Dority Delaney’s father.

Was Martin Robison Delany in the Right Place at the Right Time?

According to a chapter in African American Lives, edited by Professor Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Martin Robison Delany was born in 1812 in Charles Town, Va. (now West Virginia), and died Jan. 24, 1885, in Wilberforce, Ohio. He was the son of Samuel Delany, who was enslaved, and the freeborn Pati Peace, daughter of African-born and free Graci Peace. Pati, who had secretly taught her children to read, fled with them to Chambersburg, Pa., in 1822. Samuel followed a year later after purchasing his freedom.

It’s notable that Martin Robison Delany married Catherine A. Richards, the daughter of a once-wealthy mixed-race businessman, in Pittsburgh in 1843. Out of 11 children to whom she gave birth, six sons and one daughter survived. This would mean that Martin Robison Delany would have had to father your ancestor Dennis Delaney seven years before his marriage to Catherine Richards in order for your family oral history to be correct.

So let’s look at where Martin Robison Delany was in the years between moving to Pennsylvania as a child and marrying Catherine Richards there in 1843. An article at PA Civil War 150 states that he moved to Pittsburgh at age 19 and attended the free school for African Americans at Bethel Church there. Other sources also place him there in 1831 for schooling. PA Civil War 150 also claims that Delany was a signer of a resolution in support of African-American suffrage in Pittsburgh in 1837 and was a part of an integrated militia with Mayor Jonas McClintock in Pittsburgh in the late 1830s.

According to Biography.com, Delany “traveled through the Midwest, down to New Orleans and over to Arkansas, including a visit to the Choctaw Nation,” before marrying Richards. Also, according to African American Lives, a decision to rescind black suffrage in Pennsylvania spurred Delany to go to “the Mexican part of Texas,” where slavery was illegal and black people could become citizens, in 1839. However, as slaveholders moved in, he decided to return to Pennsylvania. You will need to find proof that during his travels south, he came in contact with Dennis Delaney’s mother, who gave birth in 1836 in South Carolina.

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Although you noted that Delany served in the military and worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, this would have been during and after the Civil War, three decades after Dennis Delaney was born. You’ll want to pinpoint your search, instead, to Martin Delany’s activities in the mid-1830s.

How Far Back Can We Trace Dennis Delaney?

You will also need to search for more information on your Dennis Dollary/Dority Delaney to see if you can connect the two men. Through census records, you have been able to locate Dennis Delaney residing in St. James Township, Clarendon, S.C., in 1900 with two sons, Henry (age 19) and William (age 17). You also had death records for two of Dennis’ sons, George Washington DeLaney and William Y.D. DeLaney, both of whom list Dennis DeLaney as their father. Using clues from these records, you can try to work even further back in time.

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From examining the death certificate for George Washington Delaney in 1942, you can learn a couple of things about the family. (Note that his name was recorded on the certificate as Wash Delaney and was then transcribed incorrectly in the database as “Nash Delaney.”) According to the record, Wash was 73 years old and was born in Clarendon, as was his father, Dennis Delaney. This means that the family was residing in Clarendon by about 1869. With this information, we would expect to find Dennis Delaney residing in Clarendon County during the enumeration of the 1870 and 1880 U.S. censuses, but we had difficulty locating him.

Since we were having trouble finding Dennis Delaney using his full name and we knew that George Washington Delaney should also have been in both census records based on his age, we changed our search options to find a George Washington without a surname, born about 1869, whose father’s name was Dennis, residing in Clarendon County, S.C. Using this approach, we located Dennis Delaney residing in Cavalry, Clarendon, S.C., in 1880. It is important to note here that his name was transcribed incorrectly as Dennis Buane, but if you examine the image of the original record, you’ll see that the surname actually is Delaney. Transcription errors happen, which is why it is always a good idea to try a variety of search options or even browse the records for ancestors.

This new record provides a great deal more information about Dennis and his family. According to this record, Dennis was born around 1837 in South Carolina, which matched what we know about him. It also includes his wife, Binky, born about 1840, and a number of children, including Washington and four others who were not included in the 1900 U.S. census. Again, we had difficulty locating Dennis in 1870, but we used the information in this record to search the census for his relatives.

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Searching for Binky, Dennis’ wife, we located the family residing in Sammy Swamp, Clarendon, in 1870 under the surname “Dorrity.” This is interesting because the correspondence you have between your second great-uncle, the Rev. William Y.D. DeLaney, and the U.S. War Department claimed that Dennis’ name was Dennis Dority DeLaney. We know that this is the same family because the information on Dennis and Binky matches what we know about them, and George Washington is in the household. Do not be alarmed that George Washington’s age differs from what we know about him; it is not uncommon to have ages recorded incorrectly in census records. This means that in the earliest record we can locate for Dennis Dorrity/Delaney following emancipation, he had the surname “Dorrity.”

What Clues Does Dennis Delaney’s Early Life Hold?

We tried locating any persons of color in Clarendon in 1860 to see whether Dennis was a free man, but we could not locate him. However, there was a slave owner named John Dorrity in Clarendon County who had a male slave in his household recorded on the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule (subscription required) who was the right age to be your Dennis Dorrity/DeLaney.

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In 1850 John Dorrity was recorded as a slave owner in Sumter County. Clarendon County was created from Sumter County in 1855 (see this map of South Carolina county boundary changes), so it is probable that he was living in the same location, but where he resided became Clarendon County. On the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule, John Dorrity had a 14-year-old boy recorded as a slave in his household who is the right age to be Dennis, so it seems a strong possibility that your Dennis DeLaney might have been born a slave in the household of John Dorrity. You could search for more records on John Dorrity, such as land or probate records, to see whether any of the papers mention his slaves by name, in order to try to confirm that your Dennis was a slave in his household.

If your Dennis Dorrity/Delaney was actually a slave prior to emancipation, you may be wondering why he changed his surname to Delaney and where the story came from that he was the son of Martin Robison Delany. As described in a previous article in this series on African-American surnames, former slaves often adopted names of prominent or well-known people they admired. At the time that Dennis made the decision to change his surname (between 1870 and 1880), Martin Robison Delany was already well-known and respected by many African Americans. It could just be out of this admiration that Dennis took on his name.

One way to know for certain whether your family is connected to Martin Robison Delany would be to try to locate one of his known descendants to see if they would be willing to take an autosomal DNA test to compare with the DNA of a descendant of Dennis Dorrity/DeLaney. (Testing the oldest living generation is recommended for the best chance of a match.) 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA are among the DNA testing companies that offer such services, and they have databases through which cousins who have taken the required tests can be matched, too.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.