portrait engraving of Robert Harlan
Source: William J. Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Cleveland OH: G. M. Rewell & Co., 1887), 616.
Person Profile

Robert Harlan

Mecklenburg County, Virginia; Harrodsburg and Lexington, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; California; England

Emily Libecap, Graduate Student Intern

Childhood and Early Life

Robert Harlan was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. We assume from Harlan’s enslaved status that his mother was also enslaved. Harlan’s father was likely Judge James Harlan, a prominent white judge. Robert Harlan was brought to Kentucky at eight years old and was raised as part of the white Harlan family.1 He learned to read and write alongside Judge Harlan’s children.

Starting in the Horse Industry

As a young man, Harlan apprenticed as a barber.2 He opened his own barber shop in Harrodsburg and a grocery store in Lexington. These were successful, and he used the profits from both to buy a race horse.3 He grew his horse business, and eventually owned an entire stable.

Marriage and Children

In 1840, Harlan married his wife Margaret Sprouel in Fayette County. Their marriage certificate lists both as free people of color.4 However, Harlan did not officially receive his freedom until 1848. He purchased it from Judge James Harlan, his former owner and rumored father.5


After emancipation, he went to California to seek his fortune during the Gold Rush.[6] He moved to San Francisco and opened a trading store. There, he amassed a considerable fortune.6 While he was away, both his wife and their young daughter passed away in 1849 and 1850.7

Shortly after their deaths, Harlan returned from California and moved to Cincinnati. There, he worked in real estate and other business ventures.8

International Racing

Harlan returned to the racing world in 1858, when he moved to England. He remained there for ten years. He was the second American to bring a group of horses (known as a racing string) to race in England. He helped establish the United States as a competitive force in the international racing community. Abroad, Harlan could escape some of the prejudice and discrimination experienced by African Americans in the United States.9

Return to the United States and Legacy

Upon returning to Cincinnati in 1869, Harlan began a career in politics. In 1870, he spoke in favor of ratification of the 15th Amendment. He became the first African American member of the Republican State Central Committee of Ohio.10

Throughout the rest of his career, he served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, was appointed to the Treasury Department, and served in the State Senate.11 His obituary remembers him as having “long since made for himself a reputation and acquaintance that will survive him for many years.”12


Fayette County Clerk. 1840. “Marriage Record of Robert Harlan and Margaret Sprouel.” Marriage Record 1823-1874 (microfilm).

Franklin County Clerk. 1848. “Deed of Emancipation to Robert Harlan from James Harlan.” Franklin County Court Order Book.

Giles, Yvonne. 2009. Stilled Voices Yet Speak: A History of African American Cemeteries in Lexington and Fayette County, Kentucky. Self-Published.

“Harlan, Robert J.” 2017. In Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. University of Kentucky. https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/12.

Ohio Statehouse Museum Staff. n.d. “Robert James Harlan.” The Ohio Statehouse. Accessed October 24, 2019. http://www.ohiostatehouse.org/museum/george-washington-williams-room/robert-james-harlan.

Simmons, William J. 1887. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, OH: George. M. Rewell & Co. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/simmons/simmons.html.

The Cincinnati Enquirer. 1897. “Eventful Life of Robert Harlan,” September 22, 1897.


When citing this article as a source in Chicago Manual of Style use this format: Last name, first name of Author. Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry. n.d. “Title of Profile or Story.” International Museum of the Horse. Accessed date. URL of page cited.

  • 1Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, 613.
  • 2Ohio Statehouse Museum Staff, “Robert James Harlan.”
  • 3“Eventful Life of Robert Harlan.”
  • 4Fayette County Clerk, “Marriage Record of Robert Harlan and Margaret Sprouel.”
  • 5Franklin County Court Order Book, “Deed of Emancipation to Robert Harlan from James Harlan.”
  • 6“Eventful Life of Robert Harlan.”
  • 7Giles, Stilled Voices Yet Speak, 47.
  • 8“Eventful Life of Robert Harlan.”
  • 9Mooney, Race Horse Men, 103.
  • 10Ohio Statehouse Museum Staff, “Robert James Harlan.”
  • 11Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, 615.
  • 12“Eventful Life of Robert Harlan.”