Journalist, newspaper editor, educator, lecturer
One of the nation's most productive newspaper editors and outspoken journalists, Robert Benjamin worked in twelve states before settling in California, where he became best known as editor of the San Francisco Sentinel. Whether teaching school, practicing law, or working on the newspaper, Benjamin was as concerned with imparting information as he was with protecting the rights of his race and, with fearless expression, exposing the racial injustices that blacks suffered in the South. As a result of his lectures throughout the South, he was well known as a speaker.
Information on Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin's family, early childhood, and death is scarce, and those details that are published often are undocumented and undated. Generally known as R.O.C. Benjamin, he was probably born on the island of St. Kitts, the British West Indies on March 31, 1855, and as local laws required, he began school while a young child. When he was eleven years old, he was sent to England to study with a private tutor to prepare for college. While still young, he enrolled in Trinity College, at Oxford University. His biographical statement in The Afro-American Press and Its Editors reports that he graduated, yet his entry in Men of Mark, which Arnold H. Taylor claims that Benjamin actually wrote, says that he spent three years there and left before receiving his degree.
Benjamin loved to travel, and he took a two-year tour of Sumatra, Java, and other islands in the East Indies. Soon after his return to England, he took a passenger vessel to America and arrived on April 13, 1869. By then, he was only fourteen years old. His love for the sea continued, and ten days later he shipped out as a cabin boy on the Lepanto; for six months Benjamin traveled to Venezuela, Curaçao, Demerara, and the West Indies. He returned to New York City in the fall of 1869 and worked in various jobs until 1877.
Becomes Newspaper Agent and Editor
In New York, Benjamin became active in public affairs and associated with such luminaries as black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. Another contact, Joe Howard Jr., who edited the New York Star, hired Benjamin as soliciting agent and office assistant. A few months later he became acquainted with the Progressive American's editor J. F. Freeman, who helped to further Benjamin's career by hiring him as city editor. Realizing the importance of citizenship, in 1875 Benjamin became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
In the political arena, Benjamin became involved in Rutherford B. Hayes' bid for the U.S. presidency. When Hayes entered competition against Samuel J. Tilden on the Democratic side, Benjamin helped by organizing political clubs in various wards and also stumped for the party, giving speeches in Hempstead, Long Island, and elsewhere in the state. His reward for helping Hayes to win came in the form of a job as letter carrier in the New York post office, but he grew weary of the work and left it after nine months.
Benjamin moved to Kentucky and taught school in several counties. He had developed an interest in law as well, and while teaching in Hodgensville, Larne County, Kentucky, he borrowed law books from a former congressman and read law after the school day ended. Each week he recited lessons to county attorney Dave Smith, who later became a state senator. Next, he moved to Decatur, Alabama, where he became a public school principal while continuing to read law.
Benjamin went to Brinkley, Arkansas, and elsewhere, all the while teaching school and saving enough money to support his trip to Memphis, Tennessee. There he presented himself before local lawyer Josiah Patterson. He was admitted to the Tennessee bar in January 1880.
Benjamin practiced law in twelve different states and at the same time maintained his interest in journalism, the field in which he appears to have sealed his place in black and American history. He owned and edited the Colored Citizen in Pittsburgh and the Chronicle in Evansville, Indiana. According to Arnold Taylor for the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, the Chronicle "championed ably the cause of Negroes." Benjamin relocated to Birmingham in 1886 where he became editor of the Negro America—an outspoken black newspaper established in September 1886. As editor, he attacked the city's hiring practices that excluded blacks from positions as firefighters, police officers, and so on, and called for a balance of power that the black vote could bring. He called local law a farce and denounced the increasing number of lynchings of blacks in Alabama. He wrote that blacks wanted only their constitutional rights and civil privileges. Whites became so incensed over Benjamin's constant agitation against these injustices and for disturbing public peace that they forced him out of Birmingham in the summer of 1887. At some point, Benjamin was also the corresponding editor for the Nashville Free Lance, published in Nashville, Tennessee, and wrote under a pen name, Cicero.
- Born in St. Kitts, British West Indies on March 31
- Settles in New York City
- Admitted to the Tennessee bar
- Relocates to Birmingham and becomes editor of the Negro American
- Forced out of Birmingham
- Begins work as editor of the San Francisco Sentinel around this time
- Dies in undisclosed location in October
Clearly he had first-hand knowledge of racial conditions in the South, for he had worked there and had seen conditions for himself. Armed with this knowledge, Benjamin also wrote about such matters in various pamphlets. He moved to California sometime before 1888, where he practiced law for whites as well as blacks, con-tinued his lectures, and strengthened his ties to journalism. He became an editor for the Los Angeles Observer. He worked also for the Los Angeles Daily Sun, becoming the only local black editor for a white newspaper. But by 1890, Benjamin edited the San Francisco Sentinel, which brought him wide recognition.
Puts Race First, Friends Next
Benjamin's motto was: "My race first, and my friends next." This statement became the motto for the Sentinel. Benjamin used the Sentinel to denounce racial problems in the South, such as lynchings, the railroad companies and their mistreatment of blacks, and other troubles. The Sentinel took the West Coast by storm and had no difficulty becoming nationally recognized. It was a lively paper, taking its place among the best black newspapers in the country. His work as editor and writer caused readers to take notice. While other black journalists of that period might have been more widely known, apparently Benjamin's work was as good as theirs. I. Garland Penn wrote in the Afro-American Press and Its Editors that Benjamin was "fearless in his editorial expression," and he gave opinions on current issues "in a courageous manner."
Whether Benjamin entered the ministry is omitted from accounts of his life; however, his twelve-page work The Zion Methodist, published in 1893, indicates that the work was prepared by Rev. R. C. O. Benjamin. Beyond his work as journalist and newspaper editor, Benjamin wrote two works of fiction: The Boy Doctor and The Adventures of Obediah Kuff. His book of poetry, Poetic Gems, was published in 1883, and his work Don't: A Book for Girls appeared in 1891. Three other books were published as well; they were The Life of Toussaint L'Ou-verture … with a Historical Survey of Santo Domingo in 1888; Southern Outrages: A Statistical Record of Lawless Doings, in 1894; and Benjamin's Pocket History of the American Negro: A Story of Thirty-One Years from 1863 to 1894, in 1894. His essays include: "The Boy Doctor," "History of the British West Indies," "Future of the American Negro," "The Southland," and "Africa, the Hope of the Negro." It is unclear whether or not his essays were published; or, if so, where and how they appeared. Benjamin's address on "The Negro Problem and Its Solution" before an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Portland, Oregon was published in 1891.
Benjamin's Southern Outrages was a compilation of lynching reports and a record of abuses suffered by blacks. On several occasions Benjamin had been assaulted by southern whites, spurring him to produce this work. His interest in promoting black culture led to his Pocket History of the American Negro, in which he praised black progress and noted the contributions of blacks in the arts, education, literature, religion, and inventions, noting that, since 1863, blacks had received over two hundred patents.
Beyond his work as writer, editor, and lecturer, in California Benjamin became active in church and community activities. He was elected presiding elder of the California Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; his jurisdictions included California, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington. He was general financial agent and superintendent of the Connection's Sabbath School on the West Coast. He declined President Benjamin Harrison's offer to serve as consul to Aux Cayes, Haiti, on the grounds that he wanted to remain head of the Sentinel.
Benjamin was fluent in French and Spanish. A popular lecturer in the South, he also took his message to major cities in Canada, where large, white audiences attended. His legacy is seen in his work as editor of the San Francisco Sentinel. He is remembered as a strong advocate of the race and for the fearless way he made his views known.
In The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, Arnold H. Taylor cited an article in the Seattle Republican for October 19, 1900, which noted that Benjamin was murdered. He had been shot years earlier by southern Democrats, who protested his work in voter registration for blacks in Kentucky when he served as editor of the Lexington Democrat. No further details concerning his life or death are known.
Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891; repr.) Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company, 1988.
Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, Ohio: Geo. M. Rewell & Co., 1887.
Suggs, Henry Lewis, ed. The Black Press in the South: 1865–1979. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Taylor, Arnold H. "R[obert] C[harles] O['hara] Benjamin." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.