John Mercer Langston was born on December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. He was the son of Ralph Quarles, a white plantation owner and Lucy Jane Langston a freedwoman of mixed African and Native American roots.
Langston was primarily noted for being the first African-American member of Congress. He was elected in 1888 from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Mercer was also an attorney, educator, abolitionist and political activist. He was also the great-uncle and namesake of Langston Hughes.
He was also the first Dean of the law school at Howard University and helped to create the Law Department there sand he was also the first president of the present day Virginia State University.
Langston began his career in Ohio where he began his life long work for freedom and equality for African-Americans. He was one of the first African-Americans ever elected to public office anywhere in the United States when he was elected to a town clerk’s position in Ohio in 1855.
All his life he fought for equality and opportunity for African-Americans in the areas of freedom, suffrage and equal rights.
Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. His mother was freed in 1809 after the birth of her eldest daughter. Langston’s parents had maintained their relationship for over twenty-five years and his father wanted all of his children born free.
Langston’s parents died when he was four. He was sent to Chillicothe, Ohio to live with a friend of his father’s, a William Gooch and his family.
While living with the Gooch family, Langston enrolled in the preparatory program at Oberlin College when he was fourteen.
While at Oberlin he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1849 and a master’s degree in theology in 1852.
Langston then applied to various law schools in Ohio and New York but was denied admission because of his race. He studied law under attorney and Republican Congressman Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1854.
In 1854, Langston married a Caroline Matilda Wall who like Langston had a white father and African-American mother. She was a freedwoman as well and an Oberlin College graduate. Together they had five children.
Langston along with his older brothers Gideon and Charles became active in the abolitionist movement. He and his brothers actively assisted runaway slaves escape to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad.
In 1858 he became president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society and Langston travelled throughout the state recruiting and organizing local units while his brother Charles remained in Cleveland as executive secretary.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Langston lobbied hard to permit African-Americans to serve in the army. Finally in 1863 the United States approved the formation of the United States Colored Troops, Langston was appointed to recruit African-Americans to fight for the Union Army.
Langston recruited hundreds of African-American men for the Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-fifth Regiments as well as over 800 African-Americans for a regiment from Ohio.
After the Civil War ended, Langston was appointed inspector-general for the freedman’s Bureau. This organization assisted newly emancipated slaves adjust to their new freedoms and they also ran schools and a bank to further assist the African-American community.
Langston worked and fought hard for equal rights and suffrage rights for African-Americans. He believed that because of how valiantly African Americans had fought for their freedom that the right to vote should be theirs as well. The right to vote was paramount for African-Americans if they were ever going to gain equality in American society.
In 1864, Langston chaired a committee whose responsibility was to report to a black national convention on African-American rights. Their agenda which was approved by this convention called for the abolition of slavery, the support of racial unity and self help and equality before the law. To meet these goals, the convention founded The National Equal Rights League and appointed Langston its first president. He served in that capacity until 1868. This organization was the precursor to the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The League was organized to have many state and local organizations. Langston travelled throughout the U.S. organizing and recruiting. By the end of the war there were chapters in every state in the Union.
In 1868, Langston moved to Washington, D.C. where he established the law department at Howard University and served as its first dean.
In 1872, he became the acting president of the university and a vice-president of the school as well. Langston advocated establishing strong academic standards and he wanted to see the same type of open environment at Howard that he had enjoyed as a student at Oberlin. He was passed over for selection as the first President of the Howard University College of Law. No reason was ever publicly given.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston to be U.S. Minister to Haiti and he also served as chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic.
In 1885, Langston returned to the United States and settled in Virginia. There he became the first president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) in Petersburg.
In 1888, Langston was urged to run for Congress as a Republican by both white and black Republicans. He ran in the election but was defeated by his Democratic opponent. Langston contested the elections due to the fact there were many accusations of fraud and many reports of voter intimidation.
After eighteen months Langston was declared the winner of the election and took his seat in the U.S. Congress for the remaining six months of his term. He lost re-election in 1890 but he was the first African-American to be elected to the Congress and in the Commonwealth of Virginia it would be over fifty years before another African-American would be elected.
Langston was also named as a member of the board of trustees of St. Paul Normal and Industrial School (St. Paul’s College, Virginia) in its organization papers passed by an act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1890.
Langston died on November 15, 1897 in Washington, D.C.
John Mercer Langston was one of the earliest pioneers for equal rights for African-Americans. Along with Fredrick Douglass he paved the way for the civil rights movement that occurred as century later. It’s unfortunate that his accolades are not well known but I believe that without the efforts of people like John Mercer Langston civil rights in the United States would be much further back than they currently are.