Description: This image of John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) is a reproduction of a full-length portrait, but it has been cropped so that only the subject's head is visible. The bearded Langston wears a stern expression.
Langston was an attorney, U.S. Representative, statesman, reformer, and an unwavering advocate of equal rights for African Americans. He was the first African American man to be admitted to the Ohio bar.
Langston was born on December 14, 1829, in Louisa County, Virginia. His father, Ralph Quarles, was a wealthy white planter and slaveholder. His mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated slave. Langston's parents died from unrelated illnesses in 1834. He received an inheritance that ensured his financial independence.
Langston and his brothers Gideon and Charles went to live with one of his father's friends, William Gooch, in Chillicothe, Ohio. In 1838, Gooch moved to Missouri, a slave state. Fearing that he might lose his inheritance if he accompanied Gooch, Langston remained in Ohio, settling in Cincinnati. In 1843 the fourteen-year-old Langston enrolled in Oberlin College's Preparatory Department and eventually graduated from the Collegiate Department in 1849. He was the fifth African American man to graduate from Oberlin. He then earned a master’s degree at Oberlin's School of Theology.
Langston was denied admittance to law school on the basis of his race, but he studied the law privately with attorney Philemon Bliss in Elyria, Ohio. He passed the bar exam in 1854, becoming Ohio's first African American attorney.
Langston established a law practice in Brownhelm, Ohio, and won election as the town's clerk. In 1856 he moved to Oberlin, where he continued to practice law. He also served on the Oberlin Town Council and on the school board.
He was active in the black rights movement. He and his brothers organized antislavery organizations at the state and local level. He assisted fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad in Ohio. He also supported and helped plan John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, although he did not participate in the attack.
During the Civil War he recruited African American soldiers for the Union cause. Langston helped form the 45th Massachusetts (the nation’s first black regiment), the 55th Massachusetts, and the 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Langston also called upon the federal government to grant African American men the right to vote. He became the leader of the National Equal Rights League in 1864 and organized suffrage campaigns in several states, including Ohio.
Following the Civil War, Langston joined the Freedman's Bureau as its Educational Inspector. After leaving this position in 1868, he organized the law department of Howard University in Washington, DC. He permitted both women and racial minorities to enroll.
From 1875 to 1883 he served as United States Consul-General to Haiti and in 1885 became president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. In 1888 he won election to the United States House of Representative, becoming the first African American from Virginia elected to the U.S. Congress. He failed to win reelection in 1890. He retired from public life in 1894. Langston died on November 15, 1897.
View on Ohio Memory. Image ID: AL05836 Subjects: Langston, John Mercer, 1829-1897; Underground Railroad--Ohio; Abolitionists; Lawyers--Ohio; Ohio History--State and Local Government--Law
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