John Mercer Langston was second only to Frederick Douglass in his position as a leader among African Americans late in the nineteenth century. He fought to advance the position of blacks in the United States both before and after emancipation, by working to end slavery and later ensuring that African Americans had access to education and the right to vote. Langston was a man of diverse talents whose abilities earned the respect of blacks and whites alike.
Louisa County, Virginia, was Langston's birthplace, but he was not there for long. Four years old when both parents died in 1834, Langston was taken in by one of his father's friends who settled in Ohio. He later boarded with other families. He was first educated in a white public school and at church schools and continued his education at Oberlin College where he earned an A.B in 1849. Langston then enrolled in the Theology Department, where he became the first black student to graduate in 1852 with a master's degree. His true passion, however, was the law. Despite racially driven attempts to deny his acceptance, he persevered and was admitted to the bar in 1854 becoming one of the first black lawyers to practice in the Midwest. Langston's ability as a public speaker fueled his effective campaigning for the Republican Party and the recruitment of black soldiers for the Union army during the Civil War. In 1864, he was elected president of the National Equal Rights League, a forerunner to the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). By 1867, he had been named educational inspector-general of the Freedmen's Bureau and frequently visited the South where he advocated greater educational and occupational opportunities for freedpeople. Langston helped found the Law Department at Howard University in the autumn of 1869 and became the university's dean and then vice president and acting president serving until 1875 whe he failed to become president of the school. Langston continued to garner support for the Republican Party and as a show of gratitude and confidence was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as U.S minister and consul general to Haiti, where he served from 1877 to 1885.
After his time in Haiti, Langston returned home to Virginia as president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in Petersburg (now Virginia State University). Langston developed changes to the curriculum by increasing the emphasis on liberal arts, as opposed to technical and occupational training. His plans, however, did not fit with what the Democrats who were in control of state and local politics thought education for African Americans should be, and they forced his resignation in 1887.
At that point, Langston turned his attention to seeking political office, campaigning for the U. S. House of Representatives from the Fourth Congressional District. This put him on a collision course with Virginia's leading Republican, William Mahone, former leader of the Readjuster Party. Mahone successfully blocked his nomination, but Langston ran as an independent against the white Republican judge Richard W. Arnold and the Democratic candidate Edward C. Venable. Anticipating trouble on election day, Langston hired poll watchers to document instances of fraud and voter intimidation. When the election returns proved too close to declare a winner, Langston used the evidence he collected to demand a recount. Two years later, the U.S. House of Representatives decided in Langston's favor and awarded him the seat. Langston served in Congress from September 23, 1890, to March 3, 1891, less than six months, making him the only African American to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia in that body until the election of Robert C. Scott in 1992.
Langston served as president of the Richmond Land and Finance Association, whose goal was purchasing land and reselling it to freedpeople. He died in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1897. That same year, the Colored and Normal University in Oklahoma Territory was founded. It was later named Langston University in his honor. Langston Hughes, renowned poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was John Mercer Langston's great-nephew and namesake.
Cheek, William and Aimee Lee Cheek. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829–65. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Cheek, William, and Aimee Lee Cheek. “John Mercer Langston: Principle and Politics.” In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 103–126.
Bromberg, Alan B. "John Mercer Langston: Black Congressman From The Old Dominion," Virginia Cavalcade 30, no. 2 (Autumn 1980): 60–67.
Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia Plantation to the Nation's Capitol. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1894.