As Black History Month 2021 begins, Allies for Black Americans introduces “Firsts in February.” This series will tell the stories of Black excellence shown through barrier breakers who were the first African American people to perform extraordinary actions, paving the way for those who would follow in their footsteps.
Reading the name John Mercer Langston might immediately conjure mental images of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. While there is a connection between these two names, John Mercer Langston—the great uncle of Hughes—is an extraordinary example of Black excellence in his own right, as the first Black member of the United States House of Representatives from Virginia and the first dean of the Howard University School of Law.
Born free on Dec. 14, 1829, Langston was the son of Ralph Quarles, a Louisa, Va., plantation owner who kept as a slave Lucy Langston, a woman of African American and Native American descent, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. Quarles granted Lucy and their daughter Maria freedom in 1806. Lucy Langston bore three children—William, Harriet, and Mary—during her separation from Quarles. Following a separation, Quarles and Lucy Langston reunited, during which time they had three additional children, Gideon, Charles Henry, and John Mercer.
Following the death of Quarles and Lucy Langston in 1834, the family property was divided among their three sons. Only four years old at the time, Langston lived with family friends and his brothers, with William Langston taking guardianship in 1843 and bringing his youngest brother to Chillicothe, Ohio. In 1849, Langston completed his bachelor of arts degree at his brothers’ alma mater Oberlin College and, in 1852, he earned his master’s of arts in theology.
Achieving his dream of becoming a lawyer was difficult for Langston, as the law schools to which he applied denied him. Undeterred, Langston trained for his legal profession under Ohio abolitionists, including Philemon Bliss, a judge and congressperson. Langston was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854, the same year that he married Caroline Wall, a fellow alum of Oberlin College, with whom he raised five children—Arthur, Ralph, Chinque, Nettie, and Frank. According to the John Mercer Langston Bar Association, one of his earliest cases, which also gained the most exposure, was providing defense for Edmonia Lewis, an Oberlin College student of African American and Native American heritage, who was accused of poisoning two of her white classmates. Langston was victorious, allowing Lewis to continue building her life as an accomplished sculptor.
While Langston’s exposure to civil rights began at a young age after he was under the guardianship of his older siblings, following his passing of the bar exam in Ohio, his commitment to fighting for equality and equity grew. The John Mercer Langston Bar
Association notes that Langston was a fervent opponent of the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the idea of sending African Americans to Africa. According to Oberlin College, the Langston brothers—Gideon, Charles, and John Mercer—developed anti-slavery societies, in addition to aiding runaway slaves as they made their way through Ohio along the Underground Railroad.
Practicing as a lawyer in Brownhelm, Ohio, where he settled with his family, Langston entered political life after winning the 1855 election of town clerk, making him one of the first African American officials elected to public office in the country. Following a move to the town of Oberlin, Langston served as the city’s councilman from 1865-1867. From 1867-1868, Langston was a member of the board of education. As inspector general of the Freedmen’s Bureau—or U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandon Lands—Langston’s role included guiding this organization that aided recently freed former slaves following the Civil War.
In 1868, Langston relocated to Washington, D.C. where he worked to establish the department of law at Howard University. According to Howard, Langston was appointed dean of the law department, followed by his appointment as acting president of the university in 1873, a position he fulfilled until 1875.
During his time at Howard, Langston continued to expand his career in the political sphere working with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to conceive the Civil Rights Bill, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. By 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant had appointed Langston to the District of Columbia Board of Health. This role was followed by an appointment by President Rutherford B. Hayes that saw Langston assuming the role of resident minister to Haiti and chargé d'affaires in Santo Domingo.
Returning to Virginia, Langston entered the 1888 race to fill a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to represent a predominantly Black district. According to the U.S. House of Representatives, the contest put him up against white Republican candidate Judge R. W. Arnold, who was nominated through a campaign led by William Mahone, a former Confederate general, and a Democratic candidate Edward Venable, who would not debate Langston. Venable won the election over Langston, with Arnold placing third.
Dissatisfied with the results, Langston contested the election in the House of Representatives. After a lengthy process that included tactics on the part of Democrats to block the progress, Langston was awarded the seat in September 1890. After his fight for the seat, Langston lost his reelection campaign, again feeling that this contest was also tainted with fraud. He refrained from a fight to retain the seat, according to the U.S. House of Representatives, which noted the focus of his lame-duck speech to Congress on Jan. 16, 1891 as the U.S. citizenship of Black Americans.
"Abuse us as you will, gentlemen," Langston said. "We will increase and multiply until, instead of finding every day five hundred Black babies turning their bright eyes to greet the rays of the sun, the number shall be five thousand and still go on increasing. There is no way to get rid of us. This is our native country."
Following his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, Langston wrote his autobiography “From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol.” The book was published in 1894, three years prior to Langston’s passing on Nov. 15, 1897, in Washington, D.C.