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Langston, John Mercer

Langston, John Mercer

December 14, 1829
November 15, 1897

The politician John Mercer Langston was born in Louisa County, Virginia, the youngest of four children born to Ralph Quarles, a white planter, and Quarles's manumitted slave, Lucy Langston. After the death of their parents in 1834, the Langston children were settled in Ohio. John Mercer began his studies in theology in 1844 at Oberlin College, where he received both a bachelor's and a master's degree. He later read law under Philemon Bliss, a judge from Elyria, Ohio, and passed the state bar examination in 1854.

Langston established a successful law practice in Brownhelm, Ohio, and he participated in local politics. His election as town clerk in 1855 made him the first African American elected by popular vote to a public office. Together with his brothers, Gideon Langston and Charles H. Langston, he made the family name synonymous with black abolitionism in Ohio. He participated in a variety of community activities, from organizing antislavery and reform societies to presiding at local and state black conventions. He was involved in the protests against state black laws, and worked with the Ohio branch of the Underground Railroad to assist escaping slaves. Langston's commitment to social reform included women's rights, temperance, and racial progress through self-reliance. He worked to improve black education in Ohio and supported the black press. His correspondence on current issues appeared frequently in Frederick Douglass's Paper, and he also contributed some articles to the Anglo-African Magazine.

Langston became disheartened by the deterioration in American race relations in the early 1850s. He began advocating black separatism and emigration, but at the 1854 national emigration convention in Cleveland he surprised delegates with a vigorous defense of integration and an optimistic assessment of the prospects for racial progress and equality in the United States. In the late 1850s he grew increasingly militant and predicted that the issue of slavery would lead to a national conflict. He was among several blacks who conspired with John Brown in the plan to incite a slave insurrection, though he declined to participate directly in the Harpers Ferry raid.

During the Civil War, Langston directed his efforts to the Union cause. His work as the chief recruiting agent in the western states helped fill the ranks of the Union

Army's black regiments. He also encouraged the charity of the soldiers' aid societies. The black national convention held in Syracuse, New York, selected him as president of the newly founded National Equal Rights League in 1864.

Contemporaries described Langston as an intelligent, persuasive orator with an "aristocratic style and a democratic temperament." Given these qualities and an impressive career of public service, he established a national reputation. Beginning in 1867, he toured the South as an inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau. His message to southern blacks emphasized educational opportunity, political equality, and economic justice. He organized the law department at Howard University in 1868 and later became the university's acting president. In 1877 he received an appointment as the American consul general to Haiti. After returning to the United States in 1885, he became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. As the Democratic Party regained control of Virginia, Langston faced a growing challenge to his civic and political leadership, but he remained in the state that he always had considered his home. In 1888 he ran as an independent in a bitterly contested campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House adjudicated in Langston's favor in September 1890, and he held his seat until March 1891. Langston surveyed his distinguished public career in an autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the Nation's Capitol (1894). In 1996, the state of Virginia recognized John Mercer Langston as one of its distinguished native sons with a historic marker in his birthplace of Louisa County.

See also Black Codes; Frederick Douglass' Paper ; Free Blacks, 16191860; Howard University; Politics in the United States; Underground Railroad


Cheek, William, and Aimee Lee Cheek. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitonist Papers, Volume 4: The United States, 1847-1858. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

michael f. hembree (1996)

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