Benjamin, Robert Charles O'Hara (31 Mar. 1855-2 Oct. 1900),
journalist and lawyer, was born on the island of St. Kitts in
the West Indies. Details about his early life, including the
names of his parents and his education, are not known. In the
fall of 1869 he arrived in New York, where he worked as soliciting
agent for the New York Star and then as city editor for the Progressive American.
Benjamin apparently became a U.S. citizen in the early
1870s, and in 1876 he gave speeches in support of Rutherford
B. Hayes, the Republican candidate for president. He was rewarded
with a position as a letter carrier in New York City but quit
after nine months and moved to Kentucky, where he taught school.
While there, Benjamin also took up the study of law. He continued
his studies after being named principal of a school in Decatur,
Alabama, and was admitted to the bar at Nashville, Tennessee, in January 1880.
Before and after his admission to the bar, the peripatetic Benjamin
continued his career in journalism. In total, he edited and/or
owned at least eleven black newspapers, including the Colored
Citizen of Pittsburgh; The Chronicle of Evansville, Illinois;
the Nashville Free Lance (where, as contributing editor, he wrote
under the name "Cicero"); the Negro American of Birmingham, Alabama;
the Los Angeles Observer; and the San Francisco Sentinel. When
Benjamin worked at each of these papers is unclear. He was apparently
in Birmingham in 1887, Los Angeles in 1888, and San Francisco
in 1891. He also worked for the Daily Sun, a white-owned newspaper
in Los Angeles.
In addition to his journalism, Benjamin also published a number
of books and pamphlets that reflected the wide range of his interests.
In 1883 he published Poetic Gems, a small collection of poetry,
and in 1888 he published Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture. He was
perhaps best known for Southern Outrages: A Statistical Record
of Lawless Doings (1894). In 1886 Benjamin traveled to Canada
on a speaking tour.
For twenty years Benjamin maintained a legal practice in the
cities where he edited newspapers. One of his cases received
widespread publicity: in Richmond, Virginia, in 1884 he won an
acquittal of a black woman charged with murder. At a time when
most white newspapers spoke of blacks in derogatory and racist
terms, Benjamin's skills as a lawyer drew favorable comment from
white newspapers in Richmond, Los Angeles, and Lexington.
Benjamin, however, did not court white opinion, although he
well understood the risk that African Americans ran in challenging
whites in civil rights, politics, and race relations. Benjamin
was a vocal critic of racial discrimination and went much further
than most black leaders; instead of simply denouncing Jim Crow
legislation, he urged blacks to defend themselves when attacked
by whites. Such an outspoken attitude led to Benjamin being forced
to leave Brinkley, Arkansas, in 1879 and Birmingham in 1887.
Irvine Garland Penn, author of The Afro-American Press and Its
Editors (1891), said of Benjamin: "He is fearless in his editorial
expression; and the fact that he is a negro does not lead him
to withhold his opinions upon the live issues of the day, but
to give them in a courageous manner."
In December 1892 Benjamin married Lula M. Robinson; they had
a son and a daughter. The family settled in Lexington, Kentucky,
in 1897. To the dismay of some whites, Benjamin quickly became
involved in local politics. On 2 October 1900 he argued with
Michael Moynahan, a Democratic precinct worker, over the white
man's harassment of blacks wishing to register to vote. Late
that evening Moynahan killed Benjamin. At the examining trial
several days later, he pleaded not guilty by reasons of self-defense.
The judge accepted Moynahan's claim and dismissed the case, even
though Benjamin had been shot in the back.
Because of his militant stance, his journalism and other writings,
and his legal career, R. C. O. Benjamin deserves serious attention
from scholars. His tragic death is also a reminder that throughout
American history even highly respected black leaders have been
vulnerable to white violence.
A few letters written by Benjamin can be found in the Booker
T. Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Copies of some
of his books and pamphlets can be found in the Library of Congress,
the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library, San Marino,
Calif., and Stanford University. Some copies of the Los Angeles
Observer and the San Francisco Sentinel are available at the
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Benjamin
is profiled in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive
and Rising (1887). Additional information can be found in the
Washington Bee, the New York Age, the Indianapolis Freeman, and
the white daily newspapers in the cities where he resided.
George C. Wright
George C. Wright. "Benjamin, Robert Charles O'Hara";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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