American public servant, educator, and diplomat, John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) was born a slave and became the only black American to serve in the U.S. Congress from Virginia.
John Langston was born in Louisa County, Va., on Dec. 14, 1829. His mother was a slave. His father, who was the slavemaster, at his death freed Langston and provided for Langston's education in his will. As a youth, he attended school in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew to manhood there, in a free state. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1849, he sought admission to several law schools. However, none would accept him because of his color, nor could he find a lawyer willing to apprentice him in his office. Thus, unable to study law, Langston returned to Oberlin to study theology, taking his degree in 1853. Afterward, he read law with Philemon Bliss of Elyria, Ohio, and was eventually admitted to the bar in 1854, after a delay again occasioned by his color. That same year he married Caroline M. Wall.
Langston settled in Lorain County, Ohio. In 1855 he was elected town clerk—probably the first African American ever to hold an elective office in America. He was also active in organizing schools for black youth in Ohio and recruiting teaching staff. In 1867-1868 he was president of the Oberlin Board of Education. During the Civil War he recruited a regiment of black troops, the 5th Ohio. He was also largely responsible for recruiting the famous 54th and 55th regiments of Massachusetts. His request for an officer's commission was under consideration when the war ended.
After the war Langston was named school inspector general of the Freedman's Bureau; he traveled throughout the South in the interest of better educational opportunities for African Americans. He was also active in organizing the National Negro Labor Union. In 1869 he became professor of law and dean of the law school at Howard University. Under his administration the Howard Law School admitted and graduated the first woman lawyer in history—C. B. Ray of New York.
From 1877 to 1885 Langston was U.S. minister to Haiti and chargé d'affaires at San Domingo. In 1885 he resigned from the diplomatic corps to reenter law practice. That same year he was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, Petersburg, remaining in this office until 1888, when he was elected to Congress from Virginia. He was not seated in Congress for 2 years because of various technicalities, and his bid for a second term was defeated. Nevertheless, he remained interested in politics until his death.
During this period many former slaves wrote autobiographies. Langston's autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, was published in 1894. In 1882 he had published a collection of his speeches, Freedom and Citizenship. He died on November 15, 1897. His personal papers are collected in the Fisk University Library, Nashville, Tenn.
Further Reading on John Mercer Langston
A detailed account of Langston's accomplishments is in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968). For a more concise account see Harry A. Ploski and Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., eds., The Negro Almanac (1967).