Robert James Harlan was born into slavery but was emancipated in 1848. He moved out to California in the Gold Rush and quickly became wealthy, either by running a store, or by gambling, or both.
In 1859 he moved to England, where he imported racehorses from America and entered them in races. He came to Cincinnati during the reconstruction era and became a state representative and the colonel of an African American militia battalion. There seemed to be no end to his talents.
Robert J. Harlan was born in 1816 in Virginia. The family later moved to Kentucky. Robert’s mother Mary was an enslaved woman, legally the property of an attorney named James Harlan. Robert grew up alongside James Harlan's’ son John Marshall Harlan, who later became a Supreme Court Justice.
Many people believe Robert J. Harland and Justice James Marshall Harlan were half-brothers. (For this possible relationship, see "Did the First Justice Harlan Have a Black Brother," by James W. Gordon, in the Western New England Law Review, v. 15, no. 2, 1993.)
John Marshall Harlan’s jurisprudence was marked by concern for the economically disadvantaged. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the court as a whole ruled that racial segregation was legal, and that “separate-but-equal” accommodations and facilities were acceptable. The sole dissenter on the court was John Marshall Harlan, who saw things differently, possibly because of his own family relationships.