Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
In 1884, James O’Hara of North Carolina told his colleagues, “I for one…hold that we are all Americans…that no matter whether a man is black or white he is an American citizen, and that the aegis of this great Republic should be held over him regardless of his color.”
On this date, Representative James O’Hara
of North Carolina was born in New York City. The illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant father and West Indian mother, O’Hara migrated to Union-occupied North Carolina in 1862. He taught school before being admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1873 and establishing a private law practice. O’Hara also served in several political patronage positions available to North Carolina Republicans after the Civil War. In 1874, he made the first of four attempts to win the U.S. House seat representing the “Black Second” district—encompassing northeastern North Carolina’s African-American black population. Finally succeeding in 1882, O’Hara was one of two African Americans serving in the 48th Congress
(1883–1885) where he focused on reversing an 1883 Supreme Court decision declaring the 1875 Civil Rights Bill unconstitutional. O’Hara boldly proposed a constitutional amendment to secure equal rights for blacks on public transportation, including the elimination of second-class “Jim Crow” rail cars. “I for one…hold that we are all Americans,” he told his congressional colleagues. “That no matter whether a man is black or white…that the aegis of this great Republic should be held over him regardless of his color.” Democrats diluted the bill with amendments and it passed—without O’Hara’s vote—in the 49th Congress
(1885–1887) with language so vague, the railroads continued their discriminatory practices. In 1886, O’Hara faced an African-American challenger, Independent candidate Israel Abbott, who accused O’Hara (who was light-skinned) of not adequately representing his darker-complexioned constituents. The two split the black electorate, paving the way for Democrat Furnifold Simmons’
victory with 45 percent of the vote. O’Hara returned to his law practice, where he worked until his death on September 15, 1905.