Looking for James E. O’Hara at the University of Chicago

While I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, I also made a quick trip to the University of Chicago Library ‘s Special Collections Research Center. I had never been to the city before, so just getting to the university was an adventure.

As I rode the CTA rail line downtown, I marveled at the diversity of the neighborhoods through which I was passing and the exuberant beauty of the murals and graffiti that I could see from my seat on the train.

I changed onto a bus downtown that carried me south along the shores of Lake Michigan. After a long ride, I got off at Hyde Park, the historic neighborhood on the South Side that has been home to so many great Americans, including Mahalia Jackson, Muhammad Ali and President Obama.

At the University of Chicago
University of Chicago

University of Chicago. Photo by David Cecelski

I walked from the bus stop to the university in a light drizzle. I found the research center in the main library and quickly felt at home when I saw poster on the wall of the cloakroom.

It showed an original, hand-corrected copy of Gwendolyn Brooks’ achingly sweet/sad poem “We Real Cool.”

Brooks was the first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. She briefly taught at the University of Chicago.

After a very kind and patient archivist oriented me to the research center’s way of doing things, I requested the papers of James E. O’Hara. O’Hara was one of four black leaders to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Congress in the 19th century.

The University of Chicago has the only public collection of his family’s papers, and I was excited to see them.

The collection’s highlight is his granddaughter’s biography of him. The granddaughter’s name was Vera Jean O’Hara Rivers.

When Rivers wrote the biography (which has never been published), she lived in Statesville, N.C. She donated the biography and the collection’s other papers to the University of Chicago in 1970.

That was probably due to the encouragement of John Hope Franklin. The great African American historian taught at the University of Chicago at the time, and Rivers was in touch with him.

James E. O’Hara, the Black Second & Congress
James E. O'Hara, ca. 1900.

James E. O’Hara, ca. 1900. I first encountered O’Hara in my own historical research when I was writing The Fire of Freedom. At one point, I found him sharing a stage with Abraham Galloway, the young insurgent who is the book’s hero. It was a dramatic moment: at a celebration marking the 2nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, O’Hara read the Proclamation aloud to several thousand men, women and children, most of whom had been slaves at the beginning of the war. That was in New Bern, N.C. on Jan. 1, 1865. At the time, he was a teacher and principal at a school for former slave children there. Photo, courtesy, University of Chicago Library.

For her biography, Rivers did first-rate historical research.

She described how James E. O’Hara’s mother, a woman of color from the West Indies, and his father, a white Irish merchant, fled the islands due to fear of reprisals for their mixed-race relationship.

They came to New York City, and not long afterward his father left his mother and his gray-eyed, red-haired son and returned to Ireland.

Though she left some gaps, I thought Rivers did a commendable job covering her grandfather’s life from his birth in New York City in 1844, to his election to the U.S. Congress in 1882.

He was elected to Congress from N.C.’s 2nd Congressional District, which was then the northeast corner of the state. It was often called the “Black Second” because of its majority-black population.

For a brief time, O’Hara was the only black man in Congress.

Rivers also chronicled how, after her grandfather lost his seat in Congress in 1886, he brought his wife Libby and their son Raphael (her father) to Enfield, in Halifax County, N.C.

This was something of a homecoming. O’Hara had practiced law and chaired the board of county commissioners there for several years in the 1870s.

On the family’s return to Enfield, he practiced law again and published a newspaper, The Progress.  They did not stay long, though. Around 1890, according to Rivers, the O’Haras moved to New Bern, N.C.

A Return to New Bern

James had first come to New Bern during the Civil War. The Union army had captured the town early in 1862, and thousands of freedpeople (former slaves) were able to seek an education for the first time. Sponsored by the AME Zion church, he had come south and worked as a teacher and principal at one of the town’s schools for former slaves.

James and Libby spent their last years together at the corner of Pollock and Liberty Streets. After their son Raphael got his law degree at Howard, he also returned to New Bern to practice with his father—their offices were at 68 Craven St.

For many years, James and Raphael O’Hara were the only black members of the town’s bar association.

The family also played an important role in establishing Catholic worship services and a school for black children in New Bern. That was at St. Paul’s, the town’s historic Catholic church. Perhaps true to his Irish father’s faith, O’Hara was a lifelong Catholic.

Those worship services and that school laid the foundation for the establishment of St. Joseph’s, a separate parish for the town’s black Catholics, in the 1920s. Libby and Raphael taught at the school in its early days.

James E. O’Hara died in New Bern on September 16, 1905, following a stroke a few days earlier. His funeral was of course held at St. Paul’s.

O'Hara family home, New Bern, N.C., ca. 1900.

O’Hara family home, New Bern, N.C., ca. 1900. Courtesy, University of Chicago Library.

While Vera Jean O’Hara Rivers’ historical research impressed me, I must confess that I had already been familiar with at least the basic outline of her grandfather’s life. That was because many years ago I read historian Eric Anderson’s excellent work on the history of the “Black Second.”

Anderson was one of John Hope Franklin’s graduate students at the University of Chicago. I assume that he had used the papers that Rivers donated to the university when he was doing his research.

What I found absolutely unique in Rivers’ biography, though, were the family stories. They totally entranced me.

Members of the New Bern Bar Association, ca. 1890-1900. James E. O'Hara sits on the far right.

Members of the New Bern Bar Association, ca. 1890-1900. James E. O’Hara sits on the far right. Courtesy, University of Chicago Library.

Rivers said that she heard most of the stories from her father, Raphael O’Hara. She said that she learned them near the end of his life, when he was convalescent for 17 months and she was helping to take care of him.

Father and daughter would sit together and he would tell her stories about his legendary father.

A Reconstruction Love Story

One of my favorites is a love story—the story of how her grandparents first met.

It was in 1868 or the early part of 1869. James E. O’Hara and Elizabeth “Libby” Harris sat on two different trains, at a train station somewhere in eastern N.C.—probably Goldsboro, where you had to change trains if you were coming south and needed to go east to New Bern.

Elizabeth "Libby" O'Hara, ca. 1900.

Elizabeth “Libby” O’Hara, ca. 1900. Courtesy, University of Chicago Library.

Libby Harris was traveling from her family home in Oberlin, Ohio, to teach former slaves in a Freedmen’s Bureau school. It was her first trip into the South. It may have been her first trip away from home.

One of her sisters, Blanche, was with her. Blanche had been teaching in a Freedmen’s Bureau school in N.C. for some time. (Another sister also taught in N.C.)

Their train pulled into the station, and while they were still sitting on the train, they caught the eye of a bold and handsome young man who was waiting on another train.

Out the open window, James E. O’Hara shouted to Blanche, whom he obviously knew.

Across the tracks James asked who was the young woman with whom she was traveling. No doubt laughing at his brazenness, or perhaps appalled by it, Blanche told him that the young woman was her sister.

In the family papers at the University of Chicago, their granddaughter Vera wrote:

“Impetuous and charming James O’Hara shouted back that Blanche’s sister was pretty, and that he was surely coming around that night, and that they’d better be ready, and that he’d like to marry her.”

He did come calling that night, and Libby was so shy that she hid in a closet.

James was not deterred, and Libby obviously warmed to him. They wed on July 14, 1869 in Oberlin.

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