Lucy A. Delaney

(b. c. 1830)

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(c. 1830–c. 1890s), ex-slave, writer, and political and religious leader.

Born to slaves, Lucy Delaney cherished her St. Louis childhood. Like Frederick Douglass and Harriet A. Jacobs, however, she soon witnessed the breach between its “joyful freedom” and slavery's later realities. When owner Major Taylor Berry, who had arranged for the family's emancipation, was killed in a duel, and his widow died, the family remained enslaved. With Lucy's father sold South, mother Polly fiercely urged her two daughters’ escape. While Nancy fled to Canada and Polly to Chicago, the latter returned to bondage to protect Lucy. Polly successfully petitioned the St. Louis courts for her own liberation, and later for Lucy's in 1844. Visiting Nancy in Toronto, Lucy wed Frederick Turner, soon to be killed in a steamboat explosion; her second marriage to Zachariah Delaney in St. Louis endured at least forty-two years. When their four children died young, Delaney tempered her mourning with a liberationist's salvo: they “were born free and died free!” Lucy finally located her father outside Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Delaney's autobiography, From the Darkness Cometh the Light (c.1891), concentrates less on the escape, literacy, and achievement of freedom that punctuate earlier slave narratives than on the liberating feats of slave-motherhood. Delaney joins the celebrants of African American maternalism—Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Annie Louise Burton, Toni Morrison, and others. Written to “invoke [my mother's] spirit,” it commences with Polly Crocket's “free” birth and her kidnapping into slavery. Despite her “commonplace virtues,” Polly releases motherhood from its ties to “pure womanhood['s]” fragility, realigning nurture with liberation. Hardly feminine genuflection, Polly's triumph in male-dominated courts is matched by her daughter's refusal to be whipped. Darkness culminates in Delaney's perpetuating her dead mother's legacy of freedom in her election to numerous civic posts, including the presidency of the “Female Union”—the first society for African American women—and of the Daughters of Zion.

William L. Andrews, introduction to From the Darkness Cometh the Light or Struggles for Freedom (c.1891), in Six Women's Slave Narratives, 1988, pp. 9–64.Rosalie Murphy Baum,“ Delaney Lucy A.,”in Africa American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Dorothy Salem, 1993, pp. 150–151.Lindon Barrett, “Self-Knowledge, Law, and African American Autobiography: Lucy A. Delaney's ‘From the Darkness Cometh Light’” in The Culture of Autobiography, ed. Robert Folkenflik 1993, pp. 104–24.Eric Gardner, “‘You Have No Business to Whip Me’: The Freedom Suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney,” African American Review, 41(Spring 2007): 33–50.

Deborah Garfield

Subjects: Literature.

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