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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Irish History Students’ Association Conference, 2016

Hello again!

Last weekend I attended the Irish History Students’ Association (IHSA) conference in Galway, Ireland. This is the second time that I’ve presented at this particular conference and I really enjoyed it. Unlike some of the major academic conferences, the participants at the IHSA are all students so the atmosphere is really relaxed, informal and supportive. It’s a great opportunity to present your work, get good feedback and meet some interesting people. I would definitely recommend presenting at this conference because everybody is so supportive and there’s very little chance that your work will be slated by someone in your field!

This year, I presented a paper on black teachers. In particular, I looked at what qualified southern black men and women to teach the freed people and their experiences of post-Civil War southern society.

Essentially, I found that most of the southern black teachers in North Carolina’s schools for the freed people received their education in some of the first freedmen’s schools. This explains why most of the black teachers did not enter the classroom until the fall of the Confederacy in 1865.

Some of the southern black teachers attended northern schools during the antebellum period. Mary Jane Patterson from Raleigh, North Carolina, was one such teacher. Around 1852 the Patterson family either bought their freedom or escaped from slavery and relocated to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1862 Mary Jane graduated from Oberlin College with a Bachelor of Arts degree – she was the second black woman in the country to accomplish such an achievement. In 1869 Mary Jane began teaching the freed people in Washington, D.C.

Some of the formerly enslaved teachers in North Carolina acquired an education during slavery, mostly through surreptitious means. This is particularly significant considering that North Carolina prohibited slave education in 1831. Although few of these enslaved people acquired anything more than a rudimentary education, they eagerly passed on their knowledge to other members of the slave community –  a tradition that continued during Reconstruction.

As you can imagine, life in post-Civil War North Carolina was challenging for southern black teachers. Poverty and white hostility were two of the greatest challenges these teachers faced. Most of the southern black teachers were not employed by an aid or missionary society so they received very little funding. Generally, these teachers worked in schools that were supported by a combination of aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau and private tuition fees (which often did not amount to very much).

White opposition to black education caused many problems – schools were frequently burned down and teachers and students were often attacked by hostile members of the white community. These issues became more prevalent as the Reconstruction era progressed with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

In addition, many southern whites refused to lease or sell land or property for the use of a school, making it very difficult to grow and sustain a viable system of black education.