First Black Lawyers In California
January 1, 2023
Behind the backdrop of what was then a different California, Robert O’Hara Benjamin may have been the first Black lawyer in the state. Like other Blacks who entered learned professions in Los Angeles during the 1800s he came from an Island East of Florida, for lack of a better word. In this case, the Caribbean. Like a real legend, he was sent to English schools at age 11, in 1866, studied at Trinity College, Oxford for three years, and left for a two-year tour of the East Indies in before earning a degree. At the age of 14 he became a cabin boy during a six month cruise to South America. Presuming this tale is true, and he studied in the University from ages 11-14, it is unclear why such a prodigy would be a cabin boy. Also, in 1869 he settled in New York, and worked for a newspaper. In 1876, he helped Ruthford B. Hayes become elected on the Republican ticket, and was appointed the letter carrier of New York post office.
For unknown reasons, Robert O’Hara Benjamin lived in several Southern States almost immediately after being appointed letter carrier in New York. He studied law in Tennessee. In 1880 he was admitted to the Tennessee Bar followed by Virginia.
In 1887 he came to San Francisco and was admitted to practice law in California. During this time bar admissions were viva voce which means, in Latin, with living voice aka orally in English, before either the local courts, or the California Supreme Court. One admission session, although slightly earlier reported the judge who orally examined the attorney seemed more interested in his personal background than his knowledge of the law. Could this be code word for discrimination?
Robert O’Hara Benjamin practiced in San Francisco. However, we was the editor of two Los Angeles newspapers and one in San Francisco during the brief period he was in California. He was assassinated in 1900 when he marched a group of Blacks to vote in Lexington Kentucky. Although he is much celebrated as both a poet, activist, and newspaper man the validity of the information on him, published in many places, seems incorrect. His reported age might be inconsistent with photographs, educational claims. Many reputable sources seem equally unsure of the facts reporting things like he may be the first Black lawyer in California, and he may have been admitted in 12 states.
Delilah Beasley spent 10 years traveling the state of California, and beyond, speaking to persons present in early statehood, and the families of trail blazing Blacks, followed by eight and a half years reading before The Negro Trail Blazer of California’s for publication in 1919.
Her book is one of the most interesting sources a historian can chance upon. Today, copies are either photographed or mimeographed from copy 726 of 1,119 in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley which houses the greatest collection on California history. Although legal issues relating to Blacks in pre-1919 California permeate her work, Beasley devoted Chapter XVI to, “Law.” She wrote that Benjamin shared an office with a well-known white firm, and he was the first Black admitted to practice in California. Much of the information reported about him on the internet seems to come from what she wrote. She claims he practiced in Los Angeles in the firm of Barham and Stewart the author of this post located at Rooms 15-16 of the Allen Block on the corner of Spring and Temple, of which either Barham or Stewart was a Scotsman, and their office would be between the various downtown courts today.
LOS ANGELES BLACK LAWYER CERUTI WAS THE LOCAL LEADER OF THE NAACP
Beasley placed her attention on Edward Burton Ceruti. He was born in Nassau, in the Bahamas, in 1873, which Beasley refers to as the West Indies. He was living in Florida by 1878, later attended Brooklyn Law School, Saint Lawrence University in New York, and came to California in 1910. Ceruti was the first Black lawyer who made himself a fixture of Los Angeles. He was regarded as a criminal defense lawyer.
Soon after Blacks gained the right to testify, he won over a white jury in Santa Barbara who first considered the trial of a Black man with a Black lawyer to be a joke. This trial is said to roused the notion that the way to eliminate crime is to remove the cause of criminality, and treat criminals in a humanitarian way. Ceruti’s achievements gained him nationwide attention.
In 1913 W.E.B Du Bois met Ceruti and made him the top local leader of the NAACP for Southern California.
Correspondence between the two leaders revealed Ceruti reporting to Du Bois about his investigation into fake homesteading done by Blacks not interested in the work of the NAACP, but apparently hired by the Syndicate owned by Otis and Chandler of the Times to squat on land in hopes of water rights to further their interest in most likely obtaining water for the San Fernando Valley which they were the original owners of the Southern portion.
Much of Ceruti’s work involved using California Civil Code Section 51 to avenge the rights of Blacks. These cases involved Blacks being charged more to attend a play in Santa Monica, the refusal to permit Blacks in movie houses, or cafes. California Civil Code Section 51 remains on the books today as a means of suing businesses for discrimination. Today it is called the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Civil Code Section 51.9.
CERUTI WAS THE IMPETUS FOR ALLOWING BLACK WOMEN TO TRAIN AS NURSES AT HOSPITALS AND ULTIMATELY ASSIST THE RED CROSS IN WORLD WAR I
During World War I, in 1918, Ceruti introduced a petition before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, on behalf of the NAACP, to allow Black women to train alongside white women as nurses. Judge Forbes showed up, claimed he was from a Southern Abolitionist family, and that if Black women were allowed to train as nurses five years earlier they would be in France carrying for the soldiers giving their lives to democracy. The motion passed with unanimous votes. Ten days later the War Department announced they were sending Black nurses overseas through the Red Cross. The National Counsel of Defense then wrote that all county hospitals in the country should use their influence to admit Black women to train as nurses in their hospitals. He was the official attorney for the Southern California branch of the NAACP.
In 1925 Ceruti became involved in the idea of Black subscribing to a massive beach resort in Huntington Beach because they were limited to Bruce’s Beach and one other in Los Angeles where they were frequently beaten, or their tires slashed while sun bathing. In 1926 the clubhouse was torched, and government in the area claimed the development would be unsafe. Ceruti died of a heart attack in 1927 when waiting in his doctor’s office for his doctor to deliver a prescription to him. Ceruti is one the most influential lawyers of his day in Los Angeles, and generally a quite interesting person beyond the scope of this article.