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This Day In History: December 14th
Politician, abolitionist and educator John Mercer Langston spent his career advocating for the advancement of the African-American community. Langston was one of the nation’s early Black elected officials despite dealing with the racial tensions of his time.
John Mercer Langston was born a free man on December 14, 1829, in Louisa County, Virginia. His mother was a free Native American–Black woman and his father was a plantation owner. After the death of both of his parents, Langston moved to Ohio and lived with a friend of his father.
His older brother fought to receive custody over him and once the dispute was settled, the two lived together in Cincinnati. Langston’s older brother inspired him to attend Oberlin College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1849 and a master’s in theology in 1852. When Langston completed his education, he decided to pursue a career in law but was denied admission into several schools.
Rather than attend law school, Langston studied under local abolitionists and was granted entry to the Ohio bar. During this time, he also became active in politics by getting involved with the Ohio Conventions which advocated for the enfranchisement of African-American men and promoted political participation. Langston became Ohio’s first African-American elected official with his role as town clerk to Brownhelm Township in April of 1855.
When the Civil War began, Langston was helpful in recruiting soldiers and after the war, he served as an inspector for the Freedmen’s Bureau. He encouraged the pursuit of education and also spoke out against segregated facilities. Langston even relocated to Washington, DC, to help establish Howard University’s law school and became the dean.
He stepped in as acting President of the university but resigned after he was not offered a full term as president. However, he became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University). In addition to his educational endeavors, Langston was also appointed minister to Haiti by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877.
Langston ran for a seat in Congress in 1888, but the election was highly contested and stalled for over a year. He emerged victoriously, but after all of the delays, he was only able to serve the remaining seven months of his term. By 1892, Langston was done running for office but aided others in their political campaigns.
He detailed his life story with the autobiography, “From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital: Or The First And Only Negro Representative In Congress From The Old Dominion,” in 1894. Langston died in Washington, DC, on November 15, 1897. His legacy lives on through the town of Langston, Oklahoma and Langston University, which were named after him.