Langston, John Mercer (1829-1897)

views updated Jun 27 2018

John Mercer Langston (1829-1897)


African american advocate

Opportunities and Constraints. John Mercer Langston spent his life challenging racial boundaries and contributing to their breakdown. His father was a plantation owner who scandalized his neighbors in Louisa County, Virginia, by living openly with a former slave whom he had freed, Lucy Langston, whose mother was Native American and whose father was African American. Both of Langstons parents died when he was five, leaving him a substantial inheritance and directing that he be raised in the free state of Ohio. There he attended the public schools of Chillicothe. One of his teachers was George B. Vashon, who in 1844 became the first black graduate of Oberlin College, then the most progressive academic institution in the country. Langston also attended Oberlin, taking his bachelors degree in 1849 and a masters degree in 1852. When he ventured outside the college, however, he encountered the aggressive racism that was common in Ohio. He was denied accommodations in a Columbus hotel, was forced to flee from an antiabolitionist mob in Cincinnati, and when he chose law for his profession was denied admission to law school. After preparing privately with a judge, he might have been denied admission to the bar had not a visual inspection satisfied the Ohio Supreme Court that Langston had more white than black blood.

Practice and Politics. Routine criminal matters accounted for much of Langstons early practice. The most sensational of these cases came in 1863 when he successfully defended an Oberlin student of African American and Native American ancestry, the future sculptor Edmonia Lewis, against charges that she had poisoned a white classmate. As an attorney, moreover, Langston expanded the involvement in politics that he had begun at Oberlin. Coauthor of the Declaration of Sentiments for the State Convention of Colored Citizens of Ohio in 1849, he later headed the Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society. His leadership in Ohio brought him onto the wider stages of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored National Convention in Rochester, New York, in July 1853. Two years later he ran on the Liberty Party ticket for the position of town clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio, and became the first black to win elective office in the United States. Moving back to Oberlin a few years later, he was elected town clerk and won additional positions on the city council and the board of education.

Reconstructing Law. In addition to aiding the Union effort in the Civil War by helping to recruit three black infantry regiments, Langston also assumed a prominent role in working to establish racial justice in the restored nation. As president of the National Equal Rights League, a lobbying organization that he helped to found in October 1864, he toured widely, delivering speeches about the need to provide blacks in the North as well as the South with citizenship and voting rights. After the war he traveled throughout the South as general inspector of schools for the Freedmens Bureau, working with local officials and delivering public addresses promoting education and encouraging active support for the Republican Party.

Reconstructing the Legal Profession. Langstons legal, educational, and political achievements led in October 1868 to an invitation to organize a law school at Howard University, which Congress had chartered in March 1867 to train black teachers and ministers. Langstons program opened in Washington, D.C., in January 1869. In addition to Langston, the early faculty consisted of an abolitionist congressman from Ohio, the chief clerk of the Freedmens Bureau, and a federal judge. The school offered students a traditional preparation that qualified them for admission to the District of Columbia bar, although aspects of the program underscored its unique origins. Sen. Charles Sumner delivered the commencement address to the first graduating class in February 1871. A year later the graduates included Charlotte E. Ray, the first woman to earn a diploma at an American law school and the first woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Langston continued to head the Howard University Law School until 1875 (for the last two years he also served as acting president of the university.) His tenure as the Law School dean was marked by the challenges of dealing with economic depression, intensified by the failure of the Freedmens Savings and Trust Company, for which Langston served on the board of directors. Langstons egotistical personality doubtless contributed significantly to the tensions, but he nevertheless helped to hold the school together through an extremely difficult period. As a result, Howard Law School survived to institutionalize black representation in the legal profession and to become in the twentieth century one of the most important training grounds for the leaders of the civil rights movement.

Back into Politics. After the Howard University board of trustees passed over Langston when choosing a successor to outgoing president O. O. Howardin a vote that according to Langston divided the trustees along racial lineshe returned to public speaking and politics. President Rutherford B. Hayes rewarded him with appointments as minister to Haiti and chargé daffaires to Santo Domingo. In 1888 Langston ran for election to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 4th Congressional District of Virginia. After an investigation demonstrated that his opponents plurality resulted from voting fraud, the House seated Langston in September 1890. This incident illustrated one of the most pressing debates at that time, whether or not Congress would provide additional means to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment ban on racial discrimination in voting. Langston vigorously favored stronger federal protection. Congress nevertheless defeated the major initiative for this purpose, the so-called Force Bill introduced in 1890 by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Langston served only one year in the House of Representatives; he died in 1897.


Maxwell Bloomfield, American Lawyers in a Changing Society, 17761876 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976);

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol: Or, the First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion (Hartford, Conn.: American, 1894).

John Mercer Langston

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Mercer Langston

American public servant, educator, and diplomat, John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) was born a slave and became the only black American to serve in the U.S. Congress from Virginia.

John Langston was born in Louisa County, Va., on Dec. 14, 1829. His mother was a slave. His father, who was the slavemaster, at his death freed Langston and provided for Langston's education in his will. As a youth, he attended school in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew to manhood there, in a free state. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1849, he sought admission to several law schools. However, none would accept him because of his color, nor could he find a lawyer willing to apprentice him in his office. Thus, unable to study law, Langston returned to Oberlin to study theology, taking his degree in 1853. Afterward, he read law with Philemon Bliss of Elyria, Ohio, and was eventually admitted to the bar in 1854, after a delay again occasioned by his color. That same year he married Caroline M. Wall.

Langston settled in Lorain County, Ohio. In 1855 he was elected town clerk—probably the first African American ever to hold an elective office in America. He was also active in organizing schools for black youth in Ohio and recruiting teaching staff. In 1867-1868 he was president of the Oberlin Board of Education. During the Civil War he recruited a regiment of black troops, the 5th Ohio. He was also largely responsible for recruiting the famous 54th and 55th regiments of Massachusetts. His request for an officer's commission was under consideration when the war ended.

After the war Langston was named school inspector general of the Freedman's Bureau; he traveled throughout the South in the interest of better educational opportunities for African Americans. He was also active in organizing the National Negro Labor Union. In 1869 he became professor of law and dean of the law school at Howard University. Under his administration the Howard Law School admitted and graduated the first woman lawyer in history—C. B. Ray of New York.

From 1877 to 1885 Langston was U.S. minister to Haiti and chargé d'affaires at San Domingo. In 1885 he resigned from the diplomatic corps to reenter law practice. That same year he was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, Petersburg, remaining in this office until 1888, when he was elected to Congress from Virginia. He was not seated in Congress for 2 years because of various technicalities, and his bid for a second term was defeated. Nevertheless, he remained interested in politics until his death.

During this period many former slaves wrote autobiographies. Langston's autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, was published in 1894. In 1882 he had published a collection of his speeches, Freedom and Citizenship. He died on November 15, 1897. His personal papers are collected in the Fisk University Library, Nashville, Tenn.

Further Reading

A detailed account of Langston's accomplishments is in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968). For a more concise account see Harry A. Ploski and Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., eds., The Negro Almanac (1967). □