John Mercer Langston Biography

John Mercer Langston

U.S. public official, diplomat, educator
Born: 12/14/1829
Birthplace: Louisa County, Va.


Langston was the son of Ralph Quarles, a white plantation owner, and Jane Langston, a Black slave. After his parents died when Langston was five, he and his brothers moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to live with family friends. Langston enrolled in Oberlin College at age 14 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the institution. Denied admission into law school, Langston studied law under attorney Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.


He became actively involved in the antislavery movement, organizing antislavery societies locally and at the state level. He helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. In 1855 Langston became the country's first Black elected official when he was elected town clerk of the Brownhelm Township. He was a founding member and president of the National Equal Rights League, which fought for Black voting rights. During the Civil War Langston recruited African Americans to fight for the Union Army. After the war, he was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal organization that helped freed slaves

Langston moved to Washington, DC in 1868 to establish and serve as dean of Howard University's law school — the first Black law school in the country. He was appointed acting president of the school in 1872. In 1877 Langston left to become U.S. minister to Haiti. He returned to Virginia in 1885 and was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). In 1888 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as an Independent. He lost to his Democratic opponent but contested the results of the election. After an 18-month fight, he won the election and served for six months. He lost his bid for reelection. Oklahoma's Langston University is named in his honor.

Died: 11/15/1897