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John Mercer Langston

the first African-American to be elected to a public office in the United States

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston was born free in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1829. His father, Ralph Quarles, was a wealthy plantation owner; his mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated slave of Indian and Black ancestry. Both parents died of unrelated illnesses in 1834, leaving John and his three siblings with a sizable inheritance. William Gooch, a friend of Ralph Quarles, took the children to Chillicothe, Ohio, and cared for them until moving to Missouri, a slave state, in 1838. A court ruled that the children risked losing their inheritance if they went to Missouri, so John chose to stay in Ohio.

At the age of 14, Langston entered the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College, where he excelled in debate. He became the fifth black to graduate from the Collegiate Department of Oberlin in 1849. He subsequently earned his Master's Degree in Theology, but was denied entry into law school because of his race. He was, however, able to study law under Judge Philemon Bliss of Elyria, and, in 1854, became the first black licensed to practice law in Ohio. He subsequently established a law practice in Brownhelm, Ohio, where, in 1854, he was elected Town Clerk, becoming the first black to be elected to a public office in the United States. He moved to Oberlin in 1856, where he served as a City Councilman (1865-1867) and on the Board of Education (1867-1868).

Langston got involved in the black rights movement while in college. In 1848, he was invited by Frederick Douglass to give an impromptu speech at the National Black Convention in Cleveland, during which he condemned those who refused to help fugitive slaves. With the aid of his brothers, he organized antislavery societies and helped runaway slaves along the Ohio section of the Underground Railroad. He also gave public speeches about various social issues, including slavery, women's rights, and temperance. While living in Oberlin, he was an active supporter of the Republican Party, and was instrumental in making slavery and black rights major planks of the party platform.

As a prominent black leader when the Civil War broke out, Langston was called upon to organize black volunteer units for the Union Army. In response, he assembled the Massachusetts 54th, the Massachusetts 55th, and the 5th Ohio. He hoped to gain a military commission for himself, but the war ended before the order could be executed.

In 1864, Langston was selected to lead the National Equal Rights League, in which capacity he carried out suffrage campaigns in Ohio, Kansas, and Missouri. From 1868 to 1869, he served as Educational Inspector for the Freedman's Bureau, in which capacity he saw to it that the rights of newly freed slaves were protected. He traveled throughout the South advocating educational opportunity, political equality, and economic justice for blacks, along with individual responsibility. His addresses were well received by blacks and whites alike.

In 1868, Langston organized the Law Department of Howard University, and served as its dean until 1876. He then spent eight years as Consul-General to Haiti, and, in 1885, became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute.

In 1888, Langston became the first African-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia, but his victory was hotly contested for 18 months before he was allowed to take his seat. He served six months before being unseated in the next election.

Langston retired from active politics after his term in the House. His autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital, was published soon after. He died in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1896.

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