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John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston (1829-1897)
John Mercer Langston (1829-1897)

Renowned lawyer, diplomat, educator, and politician.

Langston was born December 14, 1829, free in Louisa County, Virginia, where his father was a white planter and slaveholder and his mother was an emancipated slave. When both parents died in 1834, Langston received a large inheritance and became financially independent. He was raised by family friends in Ohio. In 1849 he received a B.A. in English, and in 1852, an M.A. in theology, from Oberlin College. He soon became involved in abolition and black rights activities. Unable to enroll in law school because of his race, Langston studied independently and passed the Ohio Bar in 1854. He assisted freedom seekers on their journeys North and organized antislavery societies. He became involved in local government in Oberlin, Ohio, where he practiced law. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Langston recruited for three African American regiments especially the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts and Fifth Ohio Regiments; member of the council of Oberlin 1865-1867; member of the city board of education in 1867 and 1868.

Langston campaigned for black suffrage, which was granted by Congress in 1867. He was appointed inspector general of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands in 1868-1869; traveling throughout the South to ensure that the rights of new freedmen were respected, moved to Washington, D.C., and practiced law.

Langston came to Howard University to organize its Law School, emphasizing racial and gender diversity. He was Law School dean from 1869 through 1876, elected vice president and then acting president of the university in 1872, until 1875. While at Howard,  Langston also assisted Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts with drafting the civil rights bill that was enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The 43rd Congress of the United States passed the bill in February 1875 and it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. He was appointed and commissioned by President Grant a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia in 1871; delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1876 and in 1877 appointed by President Hayes, Minister Resident and consul general to Haiti and as chargé d’affaires  to the Dominican Republic.

Langston in 1885, returned to Virginia, to became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. 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 to 1883, did not support his candidacy. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won, but his victory was contested for 18 months, leaving him a term of only six months to serve (1890-1891) as the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia. In the next election he was defeated.

In 1890 Langston was named as a member of the board of trustees of St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, a historically black college, when it was incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly. In this period, he also wrote his autobiography, which he published in 1894.

From 1891- 1897, Langston practiced law in Washington, D.C., until his death on November 15, 1897, he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Washington, DC. In his honor the Langston University and the town where it is located in Oklahoma carry his name.

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