John Mercer Langston: Abolitionist, Politician and Educator

John Mercer Langston. Public Domain


John Mercer Langston's career as an abolitionist, writer, attorney, politician and diplomat was nothing short of remarkable. Langston's mission to help African-Americans become full citizens spanned the fight for freedom of slaves to establishing a law school at Howard University,


  • Elected township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio--becoming the first African-American to hold an elected office in the United States
  • First African-American to be elected to Congress in 1888.
  • Assisted in the development of Howard University's law school and served as its dean.
  • Served as the first president of Virginia State University.

Early Life and Education

John Mercer Langston was born on December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Va. Langston was the youngest child born to Lucy Jane Langston, a freedwoman, and Ralph Quarles, a plantation owner.

Early in Langston's life, his parents died. Langston and his older siblings were sent to live with William Gooch, a Quaker, in Ohio.

While living in Ohio, Langston's older brothers, Gideon and Charles became the first African-American students to be admitted to Oberlin College.

Soon after, Langston also attended Oberlin College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1849 and a master's degree in theology in 1852. Although Langston wanted to attend law school, he was rejected from schools in New York and Oberlin because he was African-American. As a result, Langston decided to study law through an apprenticeship with Congressman Philemon Bliss. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.


Langston became an active member of the abolition movement early in his life. Working with his brothers, Langston assisted African-Americans who had escaped enslavement. By 1858, Langston and his brother, Charles established the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society to raise money for the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad.

In 1863, Langston was selected to help recruit African-Americans to fight for the United States Colored Troops. Under Langston's leadership, several hundred African-American were enlisted into the Union Army. During the Civil War, Langston supported issues concerning African-American suffrage and opportunities in employment and education. As a result of his work, the National Convention ratified his agenda-calling for an end to slavery, racial equality, and racial unity.

Following the Civil War, Langston was chosen to be the inspector general for the Freedmen's Bureau.

By 1868, Langston was living in Washington D.C. and helping to establish Howard University's law school. For the next four years, Langston worked to create strong academic standards for the school's students.

Langston also worked with Senator Charles Sumner to draft a civil rights bill. Ultimately, his work would become the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In 1877, Langston was selected to serve as U.S. Minister to Haiti, a position that he held for eight years before returning to the United States.

In 1885, Langston became the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, which is today Virginia State University.

Three years later, after building an interest in politics, Langston was encouraged to run for political office. Langston ran as a Republic for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Langston lost the race but decided to appeal the results because of acts of voter intimidation and fraud. Eighteen months later, Langston was declared the winner, serving for the remaining six months of the term. Again, Langston ran for the seat but lost when the Democrats regained control of the Congressional house.

Later, Langston served as president of the Richmond Land and Finance Association. The goal of this organization was the purchase and sell land to African-Americans.

Marriage and Family

Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall in 1854. Wall, also a graduate of Oberlin College, was the daughter of a slave and a wealthy white landowner. The couple had five children together.

Death and Legacy

On November 15, 1897, Langston died in Washington D.C. Before his death, the Colored and Normal University in Oklahoma Territory was established. The school was later renamed Langston University to honor his achievements.

Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, is Langston's great-nephew.