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Edgar P. Benjamin: philanthropist, noted attorney and banker

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
Edgar P. Benjamin: philanthropist, noted attorney and banker
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. (Photo: 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.    

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.