During Black History Month, VBC will present daily profiles of notable black conservatives past and present. It’s our hope that, through these profiles, we can be reminded of the proud history of blacks in the conservative movement and use their legacies to inspire our future. Enjoy!
John Mercer Langston (December 14, 1829 – November 15, 1897) was an American abolitionist, attorney, educator, and political activist. He was the first dean of the law school at Howard University and helped create the department. He was the first president of now Virginia State University. In 1888 he was the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia. His early career was based in Ohio, where he began his lifelong work for African-American freedom, education, equal rights and suffrage. In 1855 he was one of the first African-American people in the United States elected to public office when elected as a town clerk in Ohio.
He was the younger brother of fellow abolitionist Charles Henry Langston and the great-uncle of renowned poet Langston Hughes.
Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia, the youngest of three sons and a daughter of Ralph Quarles, a white plantation owner, and Lucy Jane Langston, a freedwoman of mixed African and Native American descent. Quarles freed Lucy and their daughter Maria in 1806, in the course of what was a relationship of more than 25 years. Their three sons were born free.
Lucy also had three other children with another partner before she moved into the Great House and deepened her relationship with Quarles. Their three sons were born after that. Of the half-siblings, William Langston was most involved with the Quarles’ sons. He relocated with them to Chillicothe, Ohio.
After his parents both died when Langston was four, he and his brothers, Gideon Quarles and Charles Henry Langston, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio with their half-brother William Langston. John was taken to live with William Gooch and his family, friends of his father’s. In 1835 the older brothers Gideon and Charles started at the preparatory school at Oberlin College, where they were the first African-American students to be admitted.
The youngest Langston enrolled in the preparatory program at Oberlin College at the age of fourteen, where his older brothers Gideon and Charles had studied. John Langston earned a bachelor’s degree in 1849 and a master’s degree in theology in 1852 from Oberlin. Denied admission to law school, most likely because of his race, Langston then studied law under attorney and Republican congressman Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.
Together with his older brothers Gideon and Charles, John Langston became active in the Abolitionist movement. He helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. In 1858 he and Charles partnered in leading the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, with John acting as president and traveling to organize local units, and Charles managing as executive secretary in Cleveland.
Even before the end of the war, Langston worked for issues of black suffrage and opportunity. He believed that black men’s service had earned their right to vote, and that it was fundamental to their creating an equal place in society. In 1864 Langston chaired the committee whose agenda was ratified by the black national convention: they called for abolition of slavery, support of racial unity and self-help, and equality before the law. To accomplish this program, the convention founded the National Equal Rights League and elected Langston president. He served until 1868. Like the later National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League was based in state and local organizations. Langston traveled widely to build support.
In 1868 Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to establish and serve as dean of Howard University’s law school; it was the first black law school in the country. Appointed acting president of the school in 1872, and vice president of the school, Langston worked to establish strong academic standards. He also hoped to create the kind of open environment he had known at Oberlin College. Langston was passed over for the permanent position of president of Howard University School of Law by a committee that refused to disclose the reason.
President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Langston a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia, where he was elected its secretary in 1875. In 1877 President Hayes appointed Langston as U.S. Minister to Haiti; he also served as chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic starting in 1884.
In 1885 Langston returned to the US and Virginia, where he was named the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, a historically black college (HBCU) at Petersburg. There he also began to build a political base. In 1888, Langston was urged to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by fellow Republicans, both black and white. Leaders of the biracial Readjuster Party, which had held political power in Virginia from 1879-1883, did not support his candidacy. Langston ran as a Republican and lost to his Democratic opponent. He contested the results of the election because of voter intimidation and fraud.
After an 18-month fight, Langston was declared the winner and took his seat in the US Congress. He served for the remaining six months of the term, and then lost his bid for reelection, as Democrats regained control of Virginia. Langston was the first black person elected to Congress from Virginia, and he was the only one for another century.
Langston was a member of the board of trustees of St Paul Normal and Industrial School, founded in Lawrenceville, Virginia by James Solomon Russell in 1888, and incorporated by the General Assembly of Virginia on March 4, 1890.