John Mercer Langston was born a free man in Louisa County, Virginia. He was the son of Ralph Quarles, a White plantation owner and Lucy Langston, a Black Native American woman, one of Quarles' slaves. His father granted his mother her freedom and she immediately left the Quarles' plantation. There is some doubt about Quarles' intention at that time relative to marrying one of his slaves, however miscegenation was strictly forbidden in the state of Virginia. When she left Quarles, Lucy had three children: William, Harriet and Mary. But they re-united later on and had three more children: Gideon, Charles and Henry.
Both parents died in 1834 and Quarles' estate was divided among his three sons, including Langston and held in trust for them since they were minors. The boys moved to Oberlin to live with a family friend, William Gooch. The move to Ohio was fraught with squabbles as to where and with whom the children would live. At ten years old, Gooch planned to move to Missouri, a slave state with Langston and even though he (Langston) was not a slave, being Black was a risk one of his brothers did not want to take. In addition, Langston was one of the heirs to a sizeable estate and leaving the state could have possibly imperiled his inheritance. So William (Langston's half brother) sued Gooch on his brother's behalf and Langston became a ward of Richard Long, an abolitionist who had bought Gooch's farm.
Following his brothers' footsteps, Langston enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio where he graduated in 1849 with a Bachelor's degree and in 1852 with a Master's degree in Theology. In 1848, he was invited by Frederick Douglass to deliver an impromptu speech at the National Black Convention in Cleveland, where he joined in the condemnation of those who refused to help fugitive slaves. Wanting to become a lawyer, Langston attempted to enroll in two law schools, but was denied because of his race–even though he was a "free" Black man. He then began to study law privately under the tutelage of a Republican congressman, Philemon Bliss in Elyria, Ohio. At that time, there reportedly were only three Black men in the entire nation who had been admitted by their respective states to practice law.
In 1854, Langston married Carolina M. Wall, a former student at Oberlin and a member of the Liberty Party. (They eventually had five children: Arthur, Ralph, Chinque, Nettie and Frank). That same year, he was admitted to the Ohio bar after a committee on the district court confirmed his knowledge of the law, and deemed him "nearer White than Black." He began his law practice in Brownhelm, Ohio, where he also handled legal matters for the town. The following year, after officially aligning himself politically with Douglass and the Free Democrats, Langston was elected clerk of the Brownhelm Township on the Liberty Party ticket, making him one of the first Blacks to be elected to public office in the United States.
Langston also became actively involved in the abolition movement and began organizing anti-slavery protests and rallies throughout the state. The movement helped runaway slaves heading North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. These activities further fueled his involvement in the state's political conventions and a bonding with other prominent Blacks. Langston helped to found and became a member of the National Equal Rights League, which fought for the voting rights of Blacks.
Frustrated that his ideas were met with resistance, he advocated Black resettlement only to be also met with the same resistance. Two years later, he reportedly conspired with John Brown at Harper's Ferry but declined to participate even though he took a more radical position advocating armed resistance until the Civil War broke out.
He used the Civil War as a vehicle to push for an expansion of the rights for Blacks by serving as a recruiting agent for "Negro" servicemen in the Union Army. His efforts led to the formation of Ohio's first Black regiment, and the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Regiments.
(The 54th Massachusetts Regiment became a legend in U. S. Army. It was the first formal unit made up entirely of Black soldiers–except officers–at a time when the Union Army was badly in need of able-bodied fighting men. So outstanding was their fighting that a movie entitled "Glory," starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, was made of their heroic military service to the country that had freed them just so that they can fight. They literally fought for their freedom.)
After the war, Langston served briefly on the Oberlin city council and as inspector-general of the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency charged with assisting recently-freed slaves. In the latter capacity, he toured the postwar South and encouraged freed Blacks to seek educational opportunities. His activities propelled him to national prominence and in 1868, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he served as dean of the law school of the newly-established Howard University, the first Black law school in the country. There in the tradition of Oberlin, he made race and gender diversity its hallmark. In 1872, Langston was appointed acting president of the university by a committee and to the District of Columbia's board of health by President Ulysses Grant.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston resident minister to Haiti and charge d'affaires to the Dominican Republic where he served until 1885. On his return to the mainland, Langston resumed his law practice in Virginia and learned that he had been denied the appropriate salary as a diplomat. He filed a claim. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Court ruled in his favor in 1886.
From 1885 to 1887, Langston was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). Because of his colorful, high-profile career, Langston was considered a celebrity by his Black neighbors in Virginia. He also maintained a high ranking in the Republican Party after having received two appointments by Republican presidents: Grant and Hayes. So he accepted the invitation of his fellow Republicans to run for the U.S. Congress representing the "Black Belt" of Virginia, a region with a 65 percent Black population. Since Langston had been assured of the nomination and was almost guaranteed the election, he began an aggressive campaign for the congressional seat. He had the support of Black and White delegates–and as in modern times–hosted lavish parties that were hosted by prominent Blacks.
Suddenly his efforts were thwarted by strong opposition from his own party, via White Republicans. The election produced stark racial divisions even among some Black Republicans including Douglass, who accused Langston of dividing the Republican vote, weakening the party and maximizing the chance for a Democratic victory. Eventually Langston lost the election by approximately 641 votes. He challenged the results in the House of Representatives and after an 18-month fight, he was declared the winner becoming the first Black to be elected to Congress from Virginia.
After serving the remaining six months, he lost has bid for re-election. During the remainder of his time in Congress, his legislative efforts were mostly unsuccessful including a bill to establish a national industrial university for Blacks. Langston made his first speech to the full session emphasizing Blacks' U.S. citizenship and condemning calls for returning to Africa. "Abuse us as you will, gentlemen," he said, "There is no way to get rid of us. This is our native country."
He used the remainder of his career to improve the quality of life for Blacks and would sometimes return to the Congress using his legal and diplomatic experience to lobby and/or debate issue dear to him. He retired in 1894 and wrote his autobiography, "From the Virginia plantation to the National Capital." He died in Washington, D.C. in 1897.
Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, is named in his honor and so too is the John M. Langston Bar Association, the oldest bar association in California.
"Legends" is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlihgt the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.