Robert James Harlan was an entrepreneur, businessman, and army officer who devoted the second half of his life to political and civic service. Among his many accomplishments, in an 1879 speech before Congress titled “Migration is the Only Remedy for Our Wrongs,” Harlan argued for the right of blacks to migrate wherever they chose within the United States. Within the next year, 6,000 black “Exodusters” would leave Mississippi and Louisiana for Kansas.
Harlan was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky on December 12, 1816 to a mulatto mother and a white father, Judge James Harlan. Although born enslaved, Harlan was raised in his father’s home, and his keen intellect meant that he was a good fit in a household that included a future Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan’s half-brother, John Marshall Harlan, wrote the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Since there were no schools for African American children in Kentucky during this era Harlan was tutored by his two older half-brothers.
Robert Harlan’s business acumen emerged early in life. At age eighteen he opened a barbershop in Harrodsburg. He later opened a grocery store in Lexington and also traded with local hunters in animal skins. In 1849 at age 32, the lure of gold took Harlan from Kentucky to California where he was one of the lucky few who tasted success during the California Gold Rush. Within a year and a half Harlan had amassed over $90,000 in gold, and in 1851, he moved from California to Cincinnati, Ohio where he invested in real estate and opened a photographic and daguerreotype gallery. In 1851 he also traveled to England to attend the first “World’s Fair.” In 1852 he married Josephine Floyd, the daughter of Virginia’s former governor John B. Floyd. In 1853 Josephine gave birth to a son, Robert James Jr., but she died when Robert Jr. was only six months old. (An earlier marriage had already produced three daughters.) Despite his business success and the freedom he enjoyed to travel, Harlan remained a slave. Following his wife’s death, Harlan sought to rectify his legal status, briefly returning to Kentucky sometime in the 1850s to purchase his freedom for $500.
From the time he moved to Cincinnati in 1851 Harlan took an active interest in civic and political affairs on both the local and national scene, and with the exception of nine years spent in England, from 1859 to 1868 where he raced horses, Cincinnati was his home. In the 1850s he opened Cincinnati’s first school for African American children. He was also a trustee for the Cincinnati public schools and for the Colored Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati. As an Ohio State legislator in 1886 he successfully worked for the repeal of Ohio’s “Black Laws.”
In 1872 Harlan was a delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention which nominated President Ulysses Grant for a second term. He served as a presidentally appointed special agent for the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Treasury. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes commissioned Harlan a colonel after he raised a battalion of 400 African American men. Harlan’s battalion continued long after his death and was eventually absorbed into the 372nd Infantry Regiment in World War II.
Col. Robert James Harlan died at age 81 on September 24, 1897.