John Mercer Langston, an educator, a diplomat, and the first African American in Virginia to serve as a U.S. congressman (1890–1891), is the subject of this studio portrait. The photograph's caption identifies him as "Prof. John Langston, Howard University." In 1868 Langston became the first dean of Howard University's law school, and in 1872 he served briefly as acting president of the university. In 1885 he became the first superintendent of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), a historically black college.
This glass-plate image is part of the Brady-Handy Collection of negatives at the Library of Congress. The collection combines the work of Mathew B. Brady and his nephew Levin D. Handy, who ran several photographic studios in Washington, D.C. The majority of the negatives are portraits taken during and after the Civil War, but the collection also includes views of Washington, D.C.