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John Mercer Langston


Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 4th district
In office
September 23, 1890 - March 3, 1891
Preceded by Edward Carrington Venable
Succeeded by James F. Epes

Born December 14, 1829(1829-12-14)
Louisa County, Virginia
Died November 15, 1897 (aged 67)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Caroline Matilda Wall
Profession Attorney and educator

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.

Contents

Early life and education

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.[1].

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 also went with them to Chillicothe, Ohio (see below.)[2].

After his parents both died when Langston was four, he and his brothers, Gideon Quarles (who looked so much like his father that he took his name at 21)[3] 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.[4]

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.

Marriage and family

In 1854 Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall, who also graduated from Oberlin College.[5] She had a similar background to his. She was the emancipated daughter of an enslaved mother and Colonel Stephen Wall, a wealthy white planter from North Carolina. Wall freed his daughters Sara and Caroline, and sent them to Ohio to be raised in an affluent Quaker household, where he provided financial support for their education.[6] An intellectual partner of Langston, Caroline had five children with him, one of whom died in childhood.[7]

Career

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.[8]

John Mercer Langston

Due to his extensive contacts from political activities in the Midwest, in 1863 when the government approved founding of the United States Colored Troops, Langston was appointed to recruit African Americans to fight for the Union Army. He enlisted hundreds of men for duty in the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth regiments, in addition to 800 for Ohio’s first black regiment. After the war, he was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen's Bureau, a Federal organization that assisted freed slaves and tried to oversee working contracts, as well as establishing schools.

Even before the end of the war, Langston worked for issues of black suffrage and opportunity. He firmly 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 as president. He served until 1868. Like the later National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League was to be based in state and local organizations. Langston traveled widely to build support. "By war's end nine state auxiliaries had been established; some twenty months later, Langston could boast of state leagues nearly everywhere." [9]

Langston moved to Washington, D.C., in 1868 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 who refused to disclose the reason. They seemed interested in reducing his emphasis on professional schools, and settling for a less challenging standard.[10]

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 Virginia, where he was named the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University), a historically black college (HBCU) at Petersburg, Virginia. There he also began to build a political base. In 1888, urged by fellow Republicans, black and white, but not by leaders of the biracial Readjuster Party which had held political power in Virginia from 1879-1883, Langston ran as a Republican for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost to his Democratic opponent, but contested the results of the election because of intimidation of voters and fraud.[11]

After an 18-month fight, Langston was declared the winner and took his seat in Congress. He served for the remaining six months of the term, and then lost his bid for reelection, as Democrats regained control of the state. Langston was the first black person elected to Congress from Virginia, and he was the only one for another century.[12]

Langston was a member of the board of trustees of St Paul Normal and Industrial School, now Saint Paul's College, founded in Lawrenceville, Virginia by James Solomon Russell in 1888, and incorporated by the General Assembly of Virginia on March 4, 1890.

Legacy and honors

Langston's house in Oberlin
  • Oklahoma's Langston University is named in his honor, as are
  • John Mercer Langston Bar Association in Columbus, Ohio;
  • Langston Hall at Oberlin College and Langston Middle School in Oberlin, Ohio;
  • the former John Mercer Langston High School in Danville, Virginia; and
  • John M. Langston High School Continuation Program in Arlington, Virginia.
  • Langston Jr. Sr. High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas which is now
  • Langston Aerospace Environmental Magnet Elementary School in Hot Springs, Arkansas
  • His house in Oberlin is a National Historic Landmark.
  • Langston Golf Course in Washington, DC.
  • Langston Hall at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia

Langston was the great-uncle of poet James Mercer Langston Hughes (called Langston Hughes).[13]

See also

References

  • Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia plantation to the National Capitol : or, The only Negro representative in Congress from the Old Dominion. 1894; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1969.
  • Langston, John Mercer. Freedom and Citizenship: Selected Lectures of Hon. John Mercer Langston. Washington D.C.: William H.Darby Publishers 1883; Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Company, 2007.
  • Cheek, William Francis and Aimee Lee. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
  • William Cheek, "A Negro Runs for Congress: John Mercer Langston and the Virginia Campaign of 1888", Journal of Negro History, 52 (Jan 1967)
  • W. Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Black Protest Leader and Abolitionist", Civil War History 16 (Mar 1970)

Citations

  1. ^ Cheek, William Francis and Aimee Lee. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp.11-12
  2. ^ Cheek, William Francis and Aimee Lee. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp.11-12
  3. ^ Cheek, William Francis and Aimee Lee. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp.11-12
  4. ^ Richard B. Sheridan, "Charles Henry Langston and the African American Struggle in Kansas", Kansas State History, Winter 1999, accessed 15 Dec 2008
  5. ^ "John Mercer Langston (1829-1897)", Oberlin College, accessed 15 Dec 2008
  6. ^ "John Mercer Langston", Black Past, accessed 15 Dec 2008
  7. ^ William and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, Leon F. Litwack and Meier, eds., University of Illinois, 1991, p.110
  8. ^ William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois, 1991
  9. ^ William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois, 1991, pp.112-114
  10. ^ William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois, 1991, p. 118
  11. ^ William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois, 1991
  12. ^ William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, "John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics", in Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois, 1991
  13. ^ "John Mercer Langston", Black Past, accessed 15 Dec 2008

External links

Preceded by
Edward Carrington Venable
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 4th congressional district

September 23, 1890 - March 3, 1891
Succeeded by
James F. Epes
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