James E. O'Hara

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James E. O'Hara
James E. O'Hara.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1887
Preceded byOrlando Hubbs
Succeeded byFurnifold M. Simmons
Member of the North Carolina House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born(1844-02-26)February 26, 1844
New York City
DiedSeptember 15, 1905(1905-09-15) (aged 61)
New Bern, North Carolina
Political partyRepublican

James Edward O'Hara (February 26, 1844 – September 15, 1905) was an American politician and attorney who in 1882, after Reconstruction, was the second African American to be elected to Congress from North Carolina.[1] He was born in New York City to parents of mixed-race West Indian and Irish ancestry. As a young man, he traveled to the southern United States after the American Civil War with religious missionaries from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination, to help freedmen establish independent lives and new congregations. O'Hara decided to remain there and became active in politics, being elected as a Republican to local and state offices.

In 1871 O'Hara was the first man from North Carolina to get a law degree from Howard University, a historically black university. He returned to North Carolina where he passed the bar and started his practice. In 1882, O'Hara was elected as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from North Carolina's 2nd congressional district, where there was a black majority in population. He served two terms, from 1883 to 1887. After being defeated in the 1886 election, he retired from politics when his term ended, and returned to his law practice.

Early life and education[edit]

James O'Hara was born in New York City on February 26, 1844; his mother was West Indian, likely of mixed race; and his father was an Irish American merchant.[2] Soon after James was born, his parents moved the family to the West Indies, where they lived into the 1850s before returning to New York.[3]

Career in North Carolina[edit]

After the American Civil War, O'Hara moved to North Carolina with missionaries of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination founded in New York City. It was seeking to aid freedmen and to plant new congregations of the independent church in the South.

During his early years in North Carolina, he "read the law" as a legal apprentice. O'Hara was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1873 as the third black lawyer in the state and returned to Enfield, North Carolina to start his law practice.[4] He also started becoming involved in politics.

Political career[edit]

After serving as clerk for the 1868 state convention that drafted a new state constitution during the Reconstruction era, O'Hara was elected as a Republican to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1868-1869.

O'Hara was admitted to the bar in 1871 and started a law practice. The next year, he was elected chairman of the Halifax County board of commissioners, serving 1872–1876. Halifax and nearby counties of the northeast part of the state had black majorities, and were included within North Carolina's 2nd congressional district. By 1877 New Bern, the major population center, was a black-majority city.[5] In the postwar period, many blacks had migrated from rural to urban areas to establish communities independent of white supervision. O'Hara was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1875, where he represented Halifax County.

New Bern residents elected blacks to the board of aldermen and the Craven County Commission, until the Democratic state legislature withdrew the county's authority to govern itself. The county continued to elect at least one black legislator each session to the state house for another decade, as did other majority-black counties in the northeast part of the state.[6]

O'Hara competed for the congressional seat from the 2nd District numerous times. He narrowly lost the election in 1878 when another Republican candidate split the party vote. Although O'Hara contested the election of the Democrat, his evidence was lost when his house burned down.

In 1882, O'Hara was elected from North Carolina's 2nd congressional district as a Republican to the Forty-eighth Congress and was re-elected to the Forty-ninth Congress, serving from March 4, 1883 - March 3, 1887. He was the second African American to be elected to Congress from the state after John A. Hyman and was the first following the Reconstruction era. While in Congress, O'Hara tried to secure compensation for freedmen who lost savings in the failure of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company, but was unsuccessful.

Although O'Hara influenced the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, asserting that Congress could regulate passenger cars as well as freight traffic, he was unable to gain language requiring enforcement of integrated passenger seating for the railroads. Congress allowed a loophole permitting segregated seating, although the railroads' interstate transportation was under federal oversight and should have been enforced constitutional rights. That year, O'Hara succeeded in amending the appropriations bill for the District of Columbia (which was then administered by the US Congress), in order to require that male and female teachers doing the same work and having the same certificates be paid equivalent salaries. Teachers of both races were paid the same in that period.

Because of Republican infighting in O'Hara's district, the vote in 1886 was split between another candidate and O'Hara. The Democrat Furnifold M. Simmons was elected by a plurality to the Fiftieth Congress. In 1900 the Democrat-dominated state legislature passed a constitutional suffrage amendment that effectively disfranchised blacks through making voter registration more difficult.[7] This status lasted for most blacks in the state until passage in the mid-1960s of civil rights legislation to enforce their rights.

After his defeat in 1886, O'Hara retired from political life. He resumed the practice of law in New Bern with his son Raphael. O'Hara died there on September 15, 1905, aged 61.

Personal life[edit]

O'Hara married 22-year-old Ann Maria Harris, in New Bern, on March 16, 1864.[8] Two years later, he moved to Goldsboro, accepting a teaching position. However, Ann refused to move there with him, even after becoming pregnant. Their relationship deteriorated, and O'Hara stopped seeing Ann, who moved to Boston and changed her surname to "Cowan." It is unclear if he ever saw their child.[8]

O'Hara family portrait (Elizabeth Eleanor, James E., and Raphael) ca. 1883.

After she left, O'Hara met and married Elizabeth Eleanor Harris, who went by "Libby, on July 14, 1869. Elizabeth was from a prominent family in Oberlin, Ohio. She had relocated to the South, after the War to teach freedmen.[8]

Two years later, O'Hara moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Treasury Department. While he was away, Ann returned to North Carolina.

In 1878, he would be accused of bigamy because of the two marriages, rendering him ineligible to serve in Congress and represent North Carolina's Second District. O'Hara denied the charge and maintained that he had obtained a legal divorce from Ann; however, without her knowledge.

The Republican executive committee refused to accept his account, and pulled him from the congressional race, calling for a second convention,less than three weeks from the election. At the next convention, O'Hara nearly earned his nomination back when the Democrats accused him of not being a citizen.[8] As of November 1867, Wayne County records showed O'Hara to be a native of the Virgin Islands. O'Hara stated that he had taken preliminary steps to become naturalized, but never completed the process as he learned he was born in New York City, though taken to the Virgin Islands by his parents, as an infant, where he was raised.[8]

Despite these things, O'Hara still won the election. However, when the votes were "counted," many of his votes were thrown out, allowing his Democratic opponent, "Buck" Kitchin. The New York Times called the election, "pure Democratic villainy," as it was widely known that Democrats sent a telegram to Tarboro stating that if O'Hara got less than a 1,000 vote majority in Egdecombe County Kitchin, would win.[8][9]

After the election loss, O'Hara set up his law practice in North Carolina.

He and Elizabeth had a son, Raphael. Raphael earned a law degree in 1895 at Shaw University and joined his father in his law practice, by then in New Bern, North Carolina. Raphael was the "first second-generation black lawyer in the state" and practiced for nearly 50 years.[10]

Elizabeth died on January 30, 1930, at the age of 80.[11] Raphael died October 30, 1952, also at the age of 80.[12] Raphael married 28-year-old C. Elizabeth Henderson, when he was 53, in December 1926. Their life together is unknown.

O'Hara was Roman Catholic.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "James Edward O’Hara (1844–1905)", North Carolina History Project
  2. ^ Reid, George W. (Summer 1979). "Four in Black: North Carolina's Black Congressmen, 1874–1901". The Journal of Negro History. 64 (3): 229–243. doi:10.2307/2717035.
  3. ^ Middleton (2002), p. 275
  4. ^ Smith (1999), p. 202
  5. ^ Justesen (2001), pp. 37–38.
  6. ^ Justesen (2001), p. 38
  7. ^ Pildes, Richard H. (2000). "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon". Constitutional Commentary. 17.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Harris, James Henry. "Positive Evidence of J.E. O'Hara's Ineligibility". James Henry Harris Papers. North Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  9. ^ "Positive Evidence of J.E. O'Hara's Ineligibility". New York Times. 26 Dec 1878.
  10. ^ Smith (1999), p. 205
  11. ^ "Elizabeth Harris Death Certificate". North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. 1930.
  12. ^ "Raphael O'Hara Death Certificate". North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. 1952.
  13. ^ "Guide to the James E. O'Hara Papers 1866-1970". University of Chicago Library. 2006.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Orlando Hubbs
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Furnifold M. Simmons