The Legacies of John Mercer Langston
By Mark Kitrick
Act One: Scene One
Elyria, Ohio, 1853 – it is late in the small room. The cheap candles turn darkness into pale light. The handsome young man, John Mercer Langston, hunkers at his rough oak desk, studiously imbibing the scholarly holdings of the numerous law books he received from Judge Philemon Bliss. He is tired, his eyes red, but the words motivate him, so he is energized. As he silently thanks the Lord for his friendship with the Judge who has allowed him to study law, the muses of the night gently toss a blanket over his eyes to prepare him for another day of study.
John Mercer Langston's objective of hanging his legal shingle collided with seemingly immovable racial forces. He could not gain normal admission to the bar because of his race. So, under the Judges aegis and Mr. Langston's labor, he was admitted to the Ohio bar in September of 1853 at age 24. (b.1829-d.1897) born in Virginia and brought to Ohio after his parents died, John Mercer Langston entered the Theology Department at Oberlin College and was the first African-American to enter such a school in the United States. He ultimately graduated from the seminary. Thereafter, he was the first African-American admitted to the Ohio bar.
His accomplishments continued to rise beyond Olympian heights. He became the first African-American to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He traveled throughout the South to set up schools for freed slaves. He was the founder and first Dean of Howard University Law School. He became the president of what is now Virginia State University and was elected to Congress from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1889. John Mercer Langston's personal and professional accomplishment are humbling and exemplary, ones that any person would wish to emulate.
Act Two: Scene Two
Mt. Vernon Avenue, Columbus, May 1998, 100 years after Mr. Langston's death – an inspired coterie of ten African-American lawyers assemble early evening to ponder the issues and problems affecting them, and to discuss how they can better serve each other and their community. Two previous organizations, The National Council for Black Lawyers and the Robert B. Elliott Law Club, are essentially defunct and it is time to form a new organization for Franklin County . Excited and inspired by legendary deeds of John Mercer Langston, the new assembly elects Patsy Thomas, Esq., as president and they name their new organization the John Mercer Langston Bar Association. The mission statement pledges to “promote professional development, networking, mentoring and community activism.”
With Marc Minor as vice president. Cynthia Callendar as secretary, Darren McNeal as treasurer and Robert Solomon as parliamentarian, the paid membership has already risen above 50. One of the admirable qualities of the new association, an affiliate of the National Bar Association, is that it represents all African-American lawyers in Franklin County, even if not paid members. Consequently, approximately 345 African-American attorneys in Franklin County are provided bi-monthly newsletters, updates and the opportunity to communicate with the organization. If there are no African-American groups in neighboring communities or counties, individuals from those communities are welcome to join the organization. The quarterly meetings, committee reports and special functions provide valuable insight and support to all African-American attorneys in this county.
The percentage of African-American attorneys in the county is miniscule. A number of factors might explain this reality, but the organization is actively working with our midd and high schools as well as local law schools to encourage more young African-Americans to become attorneys. Although one might argue that there are too many lawyers and this belief may be a dissuading factor, there are certainly not too many African-American attorneys or judges, and that includes the federal bench.
The John Mercer Langston Bar Association is well aware of several problems. One, racism exists and we must deal with its ill effects. Two, there is a lacuna of African-American attorneys representing corporations. Whether African-American attorney forms a corporation or represents a company, there are many capable African-American attorneys who can provide the same quality of legal services that larger law firms have given corporations in the past. This large void needs to be filled. Three, the group would like to further address profiling, and any affects on our community at large.
Not the Final Act
We have been lulled into thinking racism is no longer a significant issue in our society, that prejudice is not as prevalent as in the 40s, 50s, or 60s. And it may not be as blatant in some instances, but its presence must be confronted. President Thomas recalls when she was legal counsel with the Attorney General's office and was in a small county trying to settle a case. She was dressed in a conservative suit, carrying her traditional suitcase when the judge came out and inquired, “Are you waiting for your attorney?”