Black History Month: The life of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin

tpettit@herald-leader.comFebruary 16, 2013 

The headstone of 19th-century activist Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin at the African-American Cemetery on Seventh Street.

MARK ASHLEY

In October 1900, Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin escorted a group of blacks to downtown Lexington to register to vote.

Benjamin, a journalist, attorney, teacher and political activist, had one goal: racial equality.

He fought for equality and died as a result.

That October in 1900, he walked to Irishtown, a poor area of the city known as "Bloody B" for its political violence.

A white poll worker, Michael Moynihan, became outraged at Benjamin for advocating for black voters, according to articles in the Lexington Standard. Moynihan and Benjamin, 45, exchanged words and a scuffle ensued.

The next night, Moynihan waited for Benjamin with a gun in a dark alley on what is present-day Water Street. He shot Benjamin in the back and Benjamin died the next day.

His death was ruled justifiable homicide.

More than 100 years later, Benjamin hasn't been forgotten.

"It is important to remember Benjamin's story, but it is important to remember all of those people who make up the masses of history," said George C. Wright, president of Prairie View A&M University and expert on Benjamin.

Wright is a Lexington native and author of numerous books that cover blacks in Kentucky. He plans to write a book on Benjamin's life soon.

Wright has been researching Benjamin since 1990, when he was mentioned in one of his books.

"It's become a labor of love with Benjamin," Wright said, explaining his detailed research on a man about whom little is known.

Wright's research started out of an interest in an immigrant from Saint Kitts who traversed the United States from New York City to California and chose Lexington as his home.

"It's fascinating because most people of the time moved west," Wright said. "But he moved west and came back to Kentucky."

Benjamin came to America when he was about 13.

He had numerous careers; he practiced law in six states, worked at about a dozen newspapers across the country and wrote books and sermons.

Benjamin started his life in the United States in New York City, working as a newsboy, typesetter and selling advertising for newspapers.

He began working at the New York-based Progressive American as a reporter and editor until 1876, where he got into politics.

Benjamin worked on Rutherford B. Hayes' successful presidential campaign and was rewarded with a letter-carrier position in New York City. But soon afterward he moved to Kentucky. Later he moved around the South, working as a teacher, lawyer and journalist.

Benjamin's name has been etched in history books under numerous "firsts," including the first black lawyer in Virginia and Alabama, the first black lawyer to practice law in California courts and the first black editor of numerous newspapers.

"He's probably not the first black editor or the first black lawyer," Wright said. "But he's the one we know of. We need to remember him and people like him."

Wright said in Benjamin's time his editorials denouncing violence against blacks were reprinted in papers across the country. Many accounts of Benjamin's life include him being attacked by whites.

In 1897, Benjamin moved back to Lexington to take over as editor of The Lexington Standard. He kept this position until his death.

Despite segregation and Jim Crow, Benjamin maintained a passion for politics.

"Politics is what fused all of Benjamin's lives together," Wright said. "Benjamin thought politics was where change needed to occur for black people. He was poking the conscience of white folks and challenging black people."

Benjamin also worked for the newly created class of educated blacks.

"In those years after the Civil War, there were opportunities, in a sense, for blacks," Wright said. "There were other black community leaders, other black leaders and other black professionals. These were clientele to him."

Wright said not much is known about Benjamin's personal life, except a photo taken days before his death. The photo shows his wife, Lulu, 27, his toddler daughter Lillian Allen and a 4-year-old son, Robinson Charles O'Hara.

But Wright suspects this might not be the only family he had.

"If we look at when he got married, he was in his late 30s," Wright said. "So, looking at the context of the time, it was likely he had another wife."

A previous wife would have gone undiscovered during Benjamin's many moves around the country.

Through his complicated past, Wright sees a man who died defending his beliefs.

Wright says Benjamin is a man who left his mark on Lexington, and his mark on history.

"Behind every leader like Martin Luther King Jr. or W.E.B. Dubois or Malcolm X, there are people," Wright said. "People who came before them, like Benjamin."

Taylor Pettit: (859) 231-3205 Twitter: @heraldleader

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