Judy Moore: Can we talk, Mr. Langston?

Published 10:57 am Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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If it were possible, I would ask John Mercer Langston if his life as a free mixed-raced-black, white and Native American man afforded him many life changing opportunities. He would tell me that he was born on December 14, 1829 in Louisa County to Lucy Langston and Ralph Quarles and was the youngest of four children. 

John is also the great-uncle of the poet Langston Hughes. It would be revealed that in his early years, he attended the private Gilmore High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. At age 14, Langston followed in his brother’s footsteps, entering Oberlin Preparatory School. Later, in 1849, John earned his bachelor’s degree and in 1852 his master’s degree in theology from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Even though he was denied entrance into New York and Ohio law schools, John apprenticed under Philemon Bliss, an abolitionist attorney and Republican U. S. Congressman, passing the Ohio bar exam in 1854-the first black to do so. 

John M. Langston was a man of many firsts. In addition, in 1855, Langston was elected as town clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio, the first black elected official in the state. Moreover, John was very active in the Underground Railroad and delivered anti slavery speeches as president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, organizing local units.

In 1854, John married Caroline Wall, an Oberlin alum from North Carolina and their union produced five children. During the Civil War in 1863, he was appointed as a recruiter of African Americans to fight for the Union army enlisting hundreds of black volunteers for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, the U. S.’s first African American military unit. As a suffragist John believed that their military service earned them the right to vote. After the Civil War Langston was appointed as the Freedmen’s Bureau inspector general which assisted freed slaves by overseeing labor contracts in the former Confederate states during Reconstruction; it established a bank and school for freedmen and their children. 

John was later elected president of the National Equal Rights League. Subsequently, in 1868, Langston established and served as dean of Howard University’s law school in Washington, D. C. briefly serving as acting president in 1872 as well as vice president establishing strong academic standards like Oberlin College; it was the first black law school in the U. S. He co-drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. Furthermore, Grant appointed Langston as a member of D. C.’s Board of Health.

John Mercer Langston worked in politics on a global scale and in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as U. S. Minister to Haiti. Then in 1884, President Chester Arthur appointed him as U. S. Minister to the Dominican Republic. After returning to the states and Virginia, in 1885 John was appointed the first African American president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute by the state legislature. It was established as a historically black college(HBCU) and land grant college in Petersburg(now called Virginia State University). In fact, there is a building on campus that bears Langston’s name.

While there, John’s political aspirations soared, running in 1888 as a Republican for the U. S. House of Representatives. He lost, however, to his Democratic opponent. After eighteen months, he was declared the winner by congressional committee investigation, serving the remainder of his six month term. 

John M. Langston was the first black man from Virginia elected to Congress and because of Democratic backed Jim Crow laws, he became the last until 1972, when the passage of the Voting Rights Act enabled all citizens to have equal rights to pursue politics. In 1890, John was named a board of trustees member of St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, a HBCU (the now closed St. Paul’s College) in Lawrenceville. The esteemed educator and politician also wrote his autobiography in 1884. From 1891 to 1897, he practiced law in Washington, D. C., yet, sadly, on November 15, 1897, Langston died at age 67 at his home in D. C. and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the city.

John Mercer Langston as a prolific educator, activist and politician, left a lasting and inspiring legacy that encourages one to pursue steadfast service to their community. His honors include the John Mercer Langston Home in Oberlin, Oh as a designated National Historic Landmark, the John M. Langston High School in Danville, VA and a part of U. S. Route 29 in Arlington County, VA was renamed after him on July 17, 2021. When we talk about firsts and legacies, we can talk about John Mercer Langston.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum, lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.