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Edgar P. Benjamin: philanthropist, noted attorney and banker

Anthony W. Neal | 3/27/2013, 1:22 p.m.
Descendants of abolitionist giants and the first black northern Civil War troops attended the recent opening of Museum of African American History’s exhibit, Freedom Rising. At the event, Boston Postmaster James J. Holland unveiled the new Emancipation stamp and presented commemorative plaques (front, L to R): Holland; Frances and Harold Pratt, descendant of Norwood Penrose Hallowell, Massachusetts 54th regiment second-in-command; Winifred Monroe Howard, granddaughter of Henry A. Monroe, Massachusetts 54th drummer boy; Edith Griffin, (descendant of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; Sharon Lucas, Mrs. Howard’s niece; Frank Garrison; Edith Walker, descendant of abolitionist  John  J. Smith; and Faith Lucas, Mrs. Howard’s great niece. Behind the descendants were renowned historian Dr. Lois Brown, executive director Beverly Morgan Welch, event co-host Frieda Garcia and State Rep. Byron Rushing. Museum of African American History

Edgar Pinkerton Benjamin enjoyed a long, prosperous life in Boston as a successful attorney, banker and philanthropist.

The youngest of five children, he was born in Charleston, S.C., to an African American mother and a Hebrew father. Although he told one source his date of birth was Dec. 22, 1871, Benjamin’s age is listed as six months old on the June 23, 1870 U.S. Census report for Charleston, making it more likely that he was born around Dec. 22, 1869.  

His mother, Eliza H. Benjamin, brought him to Boston in 1872 with his three sisters, Charlotte, Miriam and Eva, and his brother, Lyde. Such a brave mother she was, Benjamin explained, “single-handed and alone” conquering “climate and privation so that her children might ‘get a good schooling.’”

He was convinced that the teachings and training of “the best mother that ever lived” had been the “foundation stone” upon which his success was built.       

Benjamin graduated from the Sherwin Grammar and English High schools and was president of the Sherwin School Association. His chosen calling was to become an attorney; thus, he attended Boston University School of Law and graduated in 1894.

He and 58 other proficient young men — including African American Curtis J. Wright — were formally admitted to the Massachusetts Bar on Aug. 6, 1894. He took the oath that day as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the Supreme Judicial Court presided.

Benjamin desired working for a first-class law firm for a year or two but found available positions few and far between and entirely without compensation.

His mother must have taught him a valuable lesson in self-reliance. In 1914, he wrote, “With a loan of 20 dollars, a desk, and a couple of chairs as office equipment, I started out, and have remained in the same building but in larger quarters to the present time.”

Benjamin set up his law office at 34 School St. in Boston in 1894, where it remained for more than 20 years.

One month after his admission to the bar, he advertised his law practice in The Woman’s Era — the magazine of African American journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Benjamin handled both civil and criminal cases, but the criminal matters comprised only a small part of his caseload.

Nonetheless, the criminal cases were always more conspicuous to the general public. In 1896, he gained admission to the United States Supreme Court Bar, and he eventually became sole counsel to many large firms, corporations and business associations.    

Making and keeping three resolutions enabled Benjamin to enjoy a successful legal career. First, he never solicited work or patronage. “It must come unsought on my part,” he insisted.  Most of his clientele came from the ranks of strangers.

Second, he vowed to give each client his best work and his best judgment, even if the latter meant dissuading that client from litigating. And finally, he showed loyalty to his clients and to the ethics of his profession.

Oddly enough, at that time, a large part of Benjamin’s business came to him through a Southern white man who had resided in Boston, and whose friendship he found invaluable.