James Edward O’Hara was born on February 26, 1844, reportedly in New York City, and died in New Bern, North Carolina, on September 15, 1905.
One of four black congressmen elected from North Carolina’s Second District— called the “Black Second” for its black-majority population—during the late 19th century, O’Hara was easily the state’s most flamboyant and controversial black officeholder of the era. He was elected to two terms in Congress (1883–1887) despite lingering charges of bigamy and corruption, and a controversy over his actual birthplace and his claim to U.S. citizenship.
The illegitimate son of an Irish seaman and a West Indian mother, O’Hara was distinguished in later life by his red hair and aggressive campaign style. Early in life, he listed his birthplace as Saint Croix, in the Danish West Indies, the home of his mother, where he spent much of his childhood, and later initiated naturalization proceedings to become a U.S. citizen; by 1880, he began listing New York City as his actual birthplace, claiming that his parents had since told him they left New York sometime after his birth, and that his father was a U.S. citizen. James O’Hara was apparently well educated, either in New York or the West Indies, and was raised as a Roman Catholic, although little else is known of his childhood.
O’Hara first visited North Carolina in 1862, during the Civil War, in the company of Northern missionaries, and began working as a schoolteacher in New Bern, while that city was under occupation by the Union Army. In 1866, he moved to Goldsboro. He became active in Republican politics after the War ended, and served as engrossing clerk to the state’s constitutional convention in 1868, and as a legislative clerk in the 1868-69 General Assembly, before moving to Washington, D.C.
While employed as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department, O’Hara studied law at Howard University, but did not receive a degree. By 1873, he had moved his family to Halifax County, North Carolina, where he studied law privately, and was admitted to the state bar. Active in local politics as a Republican, O’Hara was soon elected to the Halifax County commission, and chosen by its black majority as chairman. In 1875, he was a Halifax County delegate to the state’s constitutional convention. He unsuccessfully sought the Second District’s Republican nomination for Congress in 1874 and 1876.
In 1878, he finally won the Second District’s Republican nomination for Congress, facing both a white Democrat W. H. “Buck” Kitchin, and an independent black Republican candidate, James H. Harris, in the general election. During the campaign, the charge of bigamy was investigated but never resolved conclusively, and a separate controversy raged over his birthplace and actual citizenship. With the black vote badly split, and many of O’Hara’s votes invalidated by Democratic registrars, Kitchin was awarded the 1878 election. O’Hara contested the election outcome, though unsuccessfully; most of his records were destroyed in a disastrous fire at his Enfield home, and the House formally refused his contest in 1880.
Charges of corruption and malfeasance in office against O’Hara and many of his Halifax County colleagues in 1879, after they left office, were never sustained in court; although O’Hara did plead nolo contendere in one instance, his one actual trial ended in a hung jury, and almost all charges against him and most of his colleagues were later dropped. O’Hara claimed that the indictments and charges were untrue, and simply part of a political vendetta against him by the Democratic establishment; he was probably correct, according to historian Eric Anderson’s detailed analysis of the case.
In 1881, O’Hara returned to active politics, playing a leading role as an anti-prohibition leader against the state’s temperance movement. In 1882, O’Hara defeated the incumbent white congressman, Republican Orlando Hubbs, for the Second District nomination, and was unopposed in the general election. O’Hara was sworn in as a member of the 48th Congress in March 1883—initially, its only black member—and was overwhelmingly re-elected to the 49th Congress in 1884 over white Democratic opponent Frederick Woodard, a future congressman. In 1886, O’Hara won his district’s nomination for a third time, but was defeated for reelection by white Democrat Furnifold M. Simmons, in a three-way race including independent black Republican candidate Israel B. Abbott.
According to Anderson, O’Hara “was truly a man ‘not easily subdued,’” and despite obstacles, “represented his district well during his four years in Congress.” He introduced bills to provide aid to common schools, improve waterways, provide pension relief, and erect public buildings, and also obtained appointments of several black postmasters in the Second District, including Edward Richardson at New Bern. In 1884, O’Hara gained national press attention by attempting to attach an antidiscrimination rider, which would have mandated equal accommodations for all railway passengers, to an interstate commerce bill.
Following his 1886 defeat, O’Hara returned to Enfield, where he practiced law and published a weekly newspaper, until 1890, when he moved to New Bern. There, his son Raphael, a recent graduate of Shaw University, joined him in the law practice.
O’Hara was married twice. He claimed to have divorced his first wife, Ann Maria Harris, whom he married in New Bern in 1864, after moving to Washington, D.C., in 1869. That same year, he married Eleanor Elizabeth (Libby) Harris of Oberlin, Ohio. O’Hara had at least three children, including Raphael O’Hara, who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1871.
After O’Hara’s death from a stroke, a state highway historical marker was erected near Enfield in his memory (1992). He is buried in New Bern’s Greenwood Cemetery.