[1892 Autograph Letter Signed by Robert James Harlan, Black American Civil Rights Leader.]

Brief rare autograph letter signed by this important nineteenth-century African American social reformer.

Robert James Harlan (1816–1897) was born into slavery in Kentucky from the union of an enslaved mother and an unknown father. By some accounts, his father was either an enslaved man or Judge James Harlan, a white Kentucky slaveholder and politician, or even Judge Harlan’s father.

Robert was home-schooled by Judge Harlan’s two sons (possibly his older half-brothers) as Kentucky did not have schools at this time for African American children.

Harlan lived many lives. He was a a barber, a fur trader, a successful California gold ‘49-er and a noted Cincinnati real estate tycoon and horse race owner.

During Reconstruction, Harlan became an ally of Ulysses S. Grant and active in civil rights, notably raising in 1875 a battalion of 400 Black Americans. As an Ohio state legislator, he worked to repeal the “Black Laws” and spoke out against school segregation and lynchings. He was appointed a special agent of the Treasury Department. 

Harlan’s letter is addressed to “My dear Judge” —conceivably Harlan’s half-brother, John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) the Supreme Court Associate Justice and lone dissenter of the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) “separate but equal” doctrine who wrote that the “Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” In full:

“I received all of your letters and I am pleased to learn that you are so hopeful. I informed you some time ago that Soldeirs [Soldiers] had told me you would have throw a way [thrown away] your clothes or put in hot water. Send me your address and I will send you a change —Yours in haste. Robt. Harlan”

Letters by Harlans are rare. We find none in either trade or in institutions.

Description: [1892 Autograph Letter Signed by Robert James Harlan, Black American Civil Rights Leader.]

Cincinnati. February 20, 1892. Quarto, 1 page. Fine condition.


Refs. ANB. DANB. Wikipedia. BlackPast accessed online.


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