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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

A South End leader, Benjamin was most active in public affairs as a member of the Ward 18 Republican Committee. On Aug. 13, 1896, he spoke at a rally at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to ratify the nomination of William McKinley and Garret Hobart as the Republican Party ticket for president and vice president of the United States. McKinley and Hobart were elected to their respective offices, but tragically, both died while in office.     

Benjamin had political ambitions. He was nominated several times as a Republican Party candidate for the Boston Common Council and the House of Representatives. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative from the Eighteenth Suffolk District on Nov. 2, 1897.

Three years later, at a meeting held at Young’s Hotel, a special committee of 25 — one member from each of the 25 city wards being present — cast a total of 227 votes in his favor, selecting him as the party candidate from the Eighteenth Ward for the Boston School Board. Again, however, he lost the election.   

Benjamin and Miss Minnie K. Skanks of Massachusetts announced their wedding engagement in the “Table Gossip” section of the Boston Sunday Globe on Dec. 20, 1896. The couple married in 1899 and rented a home at 23 Westminster St. In April of that same year, she gave birth to their daughter, Mildred.

Edgar Benjamin and African American attorneys Clement G. Morgan and Clifford H. Plummer defended Boston Guardian editor William Monroe Trotter, Martin Granville and Bernard Charles on Aug. 5, 1903, after each had been charged with creating a disturbance at a meeting in the Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church on July 30, at which Booker T. Washington was guest speaker.  

In 1914, Benjamin expressed his views concerning Boston’s black men. He said, “The Negro asks, insists, and only wants his manhood rights. He is content to have the same reward and the same punishment meted out to him as to a white man.”

Benjamin pointed out the crucial but often ignored connection between employment discrimination and crime. “True, there is prejudice, and [a black man] is barred from most all employments,” he said, “and yet is expected to be as law-abiding as a white man.” Benjamin observed, “The difficulties in meeting this requirement are great, but still the Boston Negro is making a creditable showing, is increasing and prospering.”

In one of his more interesting cases, he successfully defended Rev. Cassius A. Ward against the charge of being an imposter. Rev. Ward served as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, having been its minister for nearly 12 years. He had been arrested and charged with illegally performing a marriage ceremony. Certain foes in his flock — those opposed to his administration — insisted that he was not a regular ordained minister of the gospel but had been defrocked.

On the charge Rev. Ward pled not guilty. Benjamin tried the case before Judge J. Albert Brackett in Boston Municipal Criminal Court on Nov. 23, 1916. A packed courtroom, mostly black people, anxiously awaited the outcome of the trial. After hearing all the evidence and the closing arguments of Benjamin and the prosecutor, Judge Brackett determined that Rev. Ward had been regularly ordained. Seeing no proof that he was ever defrocked, the judge released the reverend.

By 1920, Benjamin and his wife, Minnie, had divorced, and he and his daughter, Mildred — then 20 years old — had moved to 52 Fenwood Road in Roxbury, where his oldest sister, Charlotte “Lottie” Sampson, and his mother, Eliza, also lived.

In 1922, Benjamin established the South End Co-operative Bank and served as its president. He founded the Resthaven Home as well in 1927 and donated it to the community as a charitable corporation, with the aim of providing a residence for the elderly “without regard to race, creed or color.” Renamed the Edgar P. Benjamin Healthcare Center in 1995, the facility is located atop Mission Hill at 120 Fisher Ave. in Boston. In 2012, the center employed 220 staff members, including two doctors and dozens of nurses and rehab professionals. More than 80 percent of its employees were people of color.

Edgar P. Benjamin died a centenarian in February 1972.