John Mercer Langston was a prolific Black lawyer, educator, civil rights activist and politician during the post-Civil War era. Born to a freedwoman and a white plantation owner, Langston's career affected the lives of many Black Americans up until his death in 1897. From serving in the Union army and helping freedmen to occupying various political positions, here are five major achievements in Langston's life.
First Black lawyer
Even though Langston earned both a bachelor's and master's degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, he was denied admission from two law schools. The aspiring lawyer turned to local abolitionists in Elyria, Ohio to further his education. A committee on the district court confirmed Langston's knowledge of law, admitting him to the Ohio bar in September 1854. The first Black lawyer started his practice in Brownhelm, Ohio.
First dean of Howard University's School of Law
Not only was Langston the first dean of the Howard University's School of Law, he founded the school as the Law Department on January 6, 1869. The department started with six students, which grew to 22 by the end of session on June 30, 1869. He was appointed the dean of the department in 1870. Langston also served as a dean, vice president and the acting president at the institution over seven years. Langston also made history by becoming Virginia State University's first president, another historically black college/university.
First Black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives
Langston started his political career in 1855 as a township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio; this made him one of the first Black men to be elected to a public U.S. office. Langston's most notable political position was his time as a U.S. congressman. After many challenges and obstacles during election cycles, he became the first Black person to represent Virginia in the House of Representatives. The lawyer and educator ran as a Republican and unseated his Democratic incumbent. Langston served from September 23, 1890 to March 3, 1891.
First president of the National Equal Rights League
Langston served as the first president of the National Equal Rights League. He founded the National Equal Rights League in Syracuse, New York in 1864 alongside Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet and other prominent leaders. The goal of the organization was to put Black Americans on the path toward full citizenship as compensation for military service in both the American Revolution and Civil War. Soon after its establishment, NERL had local branches popping up in states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.
Tapped by notable political figures for important tasks and roles
Before Langston became a congressman, he was helping various political figures when it came to policies or important duties in the 1870s. For example, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts consulted Langston in drafting his Civil Rights Bill. The Virginia native was also appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to Washington D.C.'s Board of Health in 1871. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston as a minister to Haiti and chargé d'affaires in Santo Domingo in 1877.
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