James Edward O’Hara: A Black Teacher in Reconstruction North Carolina

How awesome is the digitisation of sources!?

Today I was researching black teachers in Reconstruction North Carolina for an upcoming manuscript and I came across an interesting character by the name of James Edward O’Hara. When I did a little digging, I was excited to find that many of his papers, located at the University of Chicago Library, have been digitised! Although I always look forward to potential US research trips, digital sources make my work a hell of a lot easier. For those of you who are interested, O’Hara’s papers can be found here.

So what did I find out about James Edward O’Hara?

jeoh

James Edward O’Hara. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Well, as the name suggests, O’Hara was the son of an Irish father and West Indian mother. Born in New York City in 1844, he was just 19 years old when he began teaching the freedpeople in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1862. Unable to find employment with an aid or missionary society, O’Hara taught black students in his own home, largely at his own expense.

While teaching the freedpeople in New Bern and later Goldsboro, O’Hara became active in local politics. As an educated and well-respected member of the community, he served as a delegate to North Carolina’s 1868 constitutional convention and between 1868 and 1869 he served in the state house of representatives.

picture1

The O’Hara Family Home in New Bern, North Carolina. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

After teaching the freedpeople for a total of five years, O’Hara moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department while also studying law at Howard University, a private institute of higher learning for black men and women. Upon being admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1873, O’Hara established a private practice in Enfield. 

After a long struggle and no less than four previous attempts, O’Hara finally won a seat in the 48th Congress (1883-1885) and was easily re-elected in 1884.

picture2

O’Hara and the New Bern Bar Association, 1905. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

One of the most inspiring aspects of O’Hara’s career was his dedication to the promotion of black civil rights. In spite of rising opposition, he succeeded in briefly ending segregation on interstate steam trains. After serving in Congress for four years, he returned to North Carolina to practice law with his son. 


So that’s just some of the story of James Edward O’Hara! In other news, I passed my viva exam on September 2nd, with no corrections (!) so I’m looking forward to graduating at the end of October.

An article I wrote on representations of race and racism has also been published in Paedagogica Historica. It can be found here for anyone who’d like a read – if you do not have access feel free to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to send you on a copy.

SOURCES:

James Edward O’Hara Papers, 1866-1970, University of Chicago Library.

O’Hara, James Edward, United States House of Representatives: History, Art, & Archives.

 

 

 

 

The Value of Studying History

The Old Well, UNC

So I’m here at the University of North Carolina, getting stuck into the archives and getting lots of work done. It’s been great. I will definitely write a post about all the different kinds of fun and interesting things that I’m doing but I came across an interesting quote the other day so I’m going to talk about that for now…


I’ve yet to meet a person who does not enjoy learning about some aspect of history. Although they may not necessarily want to study history, there’s usually some aspect of the the past which fascinates them. When I was teaching in a primary school, History was definitely one of my class’s favourite subjects and when I’d announce that we’d be doing History next, the whole class would erupt in a series of yesses. And that’s not an exaggeration! I was often surprised by their level of enthusiasm but it was great to be able to share my love of the subject with such an eager bunch of students. I wish third level students had the same level of enthusiasm!!!

Although learning about historical events is interesting, many people are unaware of how useful it can actually be. When I was conducting archival research at UNC, I came across an interesting quote that I believe best illustrates the value of history:

The past is the key of the present and the mirror of the future, therefore, let us adopt as a rule, to judge the future by the history of the past, and having key of past experience, let us open the door to present successes and future happiness.

These are the words of Robert G. Fitzgerald, a black American Civil War veteran, teacher of the former slaves and political activist, written on 26 July 1867. His diaries can be found in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina. You can find the link here.

This quote really struck me and it’s funny because Fitzgerald’s granddaughter actually used that same quote as the epigraph to her book Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, something I just found out.

So basically, through the study of history we can learn from the past to plan for the present and prepare for the future. And that’s why historians matter!!!! 🙂