John Mercer Langston (1829 - 1897)
by Susan Robinson
John Mercer Langston
John Mercer Langston was the first African American elected to public office. He was born on the plantation of Captain Ralph Quarles in Louisa County, Virginia. Quarles was his father, and his mother, Lucy Langston, was a former slave of African and Native American descent who had been emancipated by Quarles. Langston had two brothers, Gideon and Charles, and a sister, Maria. In 1834 both his parents died of unrelated illnesses, and Langston and his siblings became orphans. They were rich orphans, however, because Quarles had left his entire estate to them.

A family friend in Ohio (a free state) took in the children and raised them until he moved his family to Missouri, a slavery state. Langston remained in Ohio, and at the age of fourteen he enrolled in Oberlin College. At Oberlin he earned a Bachelor's degree, and then a Master's degree in theology. During and after his college years, Langston became involved in politics, organizing political groups for African Americans to advance the causes of abolition of slavery and civil rights for Black people.

In 1848, Frederick Douglass invited him to speak at the first National Black Convention. Langston's speech exhorted people to assist runaway slaves.

Langston applied to several law schools but was denied entry because of his race. One law school suggested he enroll, but sit at the back of the classroom and keep quiet, and then if after a while none of the other students objected to his presence, he could gradually become an active participant. The president of the law school recommended he pretend to be French or Spanish, anything except African American. Langston, quite insulted, declined, and instead found a position working for a judge, Philemon Bliss, who trained him until he passed the bar exam in 1854. Langston became a successful and prominent attorney. One of his most famous cases was that of Edmonia Lewis, who was accused of poisoning two of her White classmates at Oberlin. Langston's defense resulted in her acquittal, and she went on to become an acclaimed African American sculptor.

Langston became an opponent of the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending Black people back to Africa. As his reputation grew in political circles, he came to be regarded as one of the most African American leaders of his time.

Langston married Caroline Wall, another Oberlin alumnus. They moved to Brownhelm, Ohio, where he served on the City Council for about five years starting in 1855. When he was elected to the position of Town Clerk, he became the first African American to be elected to a public office. He was active in the Republican Party and was instrumental in steering the party toward its strong anti-slavery position.

As a respected Black leader, Langston was called upon to recruit African American volunteers to fight in the Civil War. He organized the first Black regiment in the history of the United States, the Massachusetts 54th, and two other regiments made up of African American soldiers. During and after the war, he fought tirelessly for voting rights for Black Americans.

Langston held many offices, including president of the National Equal Rights League and member of the Board of Education in Oberlin. In 1868 and 1869, he was Education Inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau, working to provide educational opportunities for newly freed slaves. From 1869 until 1876, he was the dean of Howard University's law school, but the Board of Trustees became uncomfortable with his political views. They forced him out of the position, but the entire Law Department at Howard resigned in protest of their action. After leaving Howard, Langston was appointed to the diplomatic corps and served as U.S. Consul General to Haiti for seven years. Upon his return, he became president of Virginia Normal College Institute.

In 1889, Langston was elected to the United States Congress, representing the State of Virginia. There was a long legal dispute concerning rigging of the polls on election day, an apparent attempt by Langston's Democratic opponents to prevent him from taking his seat in Congress. After an eighteen month battle, Langston took his congressional position. 

He spent the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., as a political leader and activist, although he was not re-elected to Congress. He retired in 1894 and wrote his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital. The town of Langston, Oklahoma, andLangston University, in that town, were named after him. He is recognized as a successful African American leader and advocate, who fought for abolition of slavery, African American voting rights, and education for Black people. In his time, he was second only to Frederick Douglass in influence and achievement in the political arena.