ENTRY

John Mercer Langston (1829–1897)

SUMMARY

John Mercer Langston served as Virginia’s first African American member of Congress (1890–1891) and as the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University). The son of a white Louisa County planter and the woman he freed, Langston grew up in Ohio, where, as an attorney and local office holder, he helped recruit African American troops during the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the war, his involvement with the Freedmen’s Bureau as inspector of schools brought him back to Virginia. In 1870 Langston became dean of Howard University’s law school and served as acting president of the university from 1873 until 1875. In 1885, the Virginia State Board of Education named Langston president of the new Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. The new school grew under his leadership, but the Democrat-packed board of visitors did not renew his contract two years later. In 1888 he sought the Republican nomination for Congress, but party leader William Mahone engineered his defeat. Langston ran an independent campaign in which a Democrat was named the winner. Langston disputed the election results, however, and eventually Congress seated him for the final months of his term. He lost reelection and returned to Washington, D.C., where he published an autobiography. He died in Washington in 1897.

READING LEVEL
Grade 4

Early Years

Langston was born on December 14, 1829. He was born free in Louisa County.

His father was named Ralph Quarles. He was a white planter. His mother was named Lucy Jane Langston. She was his father’s mistress. Her ancestors were African and American Indian. Quarles bought and freed Lucy Jane Langston in 1806. Langston wrote that his father had “peculiar and unusual” views about slavery. His parents truly loved each other. Still, the laws in Virginia said they could not get married. They both died early in 1834. Langston wrote that they were buried side by side.

Langston grew up with his guardian in Ohio. He went to Oberlin College. At the time, most of the students who went to Oberlin were white. The college was the first of its kind to open its doors to Black people and women. Langston graduated in 1849. He earned a master’s degree in 1852. In 1853, he graduated from the college’s seminary. This type of school helps students learn about religion. Langston also studied law. He passed the bar in 1854. In 1855, he was elected as clerk of Brownhelm. He was one of the first African Americans to be elected to office in Ohio. Langston was an important part of Ohio’s new Republican Party. He also played a major role in the abolitionist movement. That means he was part of the great effort to end the practice of slavery. On October 25, 1854, Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall. They had three sons and two daughters. One of their daughters died as a child.

During the Civil War, Langston worked very hard. He signed up for the draft in June 1863. He worked as a recruiter. His job was to enlist or enroll men to fight for the Union. Men that Langston recruited fought for different units. They fought for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments as well as the 5th Ohio Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Langston wanted to serve as a colonel in the United States Army. However, the war ended before he reached that goal.

In Higher Education

Langston traveled all over the South. He spoke before large groups of Black and white people. He talked about the power of voting rights. He talked about the power of education. In May 1867, he joined the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. He observed schools in Virginia. The next month, the bureau made him the general inspector of schools. The next year, he became a law professor at Howard University. Howard is in Washington, D.C. In 1870, Langston was named dean of the law school. That means he was in charge of the school. From December 1873 to July 1875, he served as vice president and acting president of the university. That means he was in charge of all the schools at Howard.  In 1874, Howard gave Langston an honorary law degree. 

Langston played a big role in the Republican Party. In 1871, President Grant asked him to join the Board of Health for the District of Columbia. This board helps keep people safe by promoting health and wellness. In 1877, President Hayes asked him to serve in a high-ranking post. Langston lived in Haiti as a diplomat. He served in this role until 1885. In 1883, Langston turned many of his speeches into a book. He gave his book the title Freedom and Citizenship.

On November 19, 1885, Langston started a new job. He became the president of a new school named the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. The school was the first state-supported college of its kind in the South. It was one of the first to teach and employ both men and women. One of its main goals was to prepare black teachers for the state’s public school system. The school was later named Virginia State University.

Langston took office in January 1886. During his first year, the college had 150 students. It had one large building that had not been completed. The construction project faced money problems and scandal. Also, the state told him he must hold an institute for teachers. Langston did not give up. He held the institute on campus that summer. He convinced the state to pay the money that was needed to finish the main building. Thanks to Langston, the teacher education program grew. He added subjects like astronomy, civics, English literature, and rhetoric. He also added jobs for six new professors.

During his second year, the number of students at the school grew to almost 200. More than 130 teachers came to the institute that summer. By then, however, power had shifted at the state level. The state disagreed with Langston’s vision for the school’s future. The students agreed with Langston and made their views public.  Even so, on December 6, 1887, James H. Johnston was named president of the school. Langston had to step down.

A Disputed Election

On January 2, 1888, a big conference took place in Farmville. The Republican Party met to talk about who they would support in the next election. African Americans urged Langston to run for the House of Representatives. They wanted him to speak for the Fourth District. Most of the people who lived in this district were Black. Langston chose to run for the position. He sought his party’s nomination. William Mahone was the party’s white leader. He was a former Confederate general. He did not want Langston to run. He supported a white Republican, Richard W. Arnold, instead. He did not want African Americans to have too much power or rise too high.

The Republican Party met again in September. This time, they would vote for the candidates they wanted to nominate. Party leaders listened to Mahone. He had great power. They chose Arnold as their candidate. Langston still ran without his party’s support. He worked very hard. The district’s black residents supported him, not Arnold. They did not agree with the party’s white leaders. When the ballots were counted, Arnold had just 3,207 votes. Langston had 12,657 votes. Even so, Edward C. Venable won the election. He was the candidate for the Democratic Party. He had 13,298 votes.

In 1889, the Fifty-First Congress met. Langston showed them evidence that the people who ran the election were dishonest. They did not count the votes the correct way. The Congress agreed. On September 23, 1890, they voted to unseat Venable. They awarded the seat to Langston. Leading up to the vote, Virginia Congressman Charles T. O’Ferrall told other Democrats not to answer when the clerk called the roll. He hoped to stop the vote from taking place by the absence of a quorum. A quorum is the number of members that must be present to vote.  The Speaker of the House told the clerk to record the silent Democrats as present. He declared Langston elected.

In Congress

Langston was the first African American to win a seat in Congress from Virginia. He served for about three months. His term lasted from the end of September 1890 to early March 1891. Congress did not meet in October and November. Langston sat on the Committee on Education. He proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. An amendment is a change. Langston wanted to change the rules for elections. He thought people should have to pass a literacy test in order to vote. He thought this might help both Black and white people learn to read. He also proposed a bill to establish a national university for Black students. Both proposals failed.

Langston gave two speeches during his time in Congress. One speech was about the merchant marine. The more important one was in support of the so-called Force Bill. This bill would have helped to make sure African Americans were treated fairly during elections. The Senate would not discuss the bill. Langston was outraged. He condemned Democrats for opposing full civil rights for all citizens, including southern white men. These men were also sometimes victims of voter frauds. On January 16, 1891, he said, “The question is, shall every freeman, shall every American citizen, shall every American elector in the North and in the South, everywhere in the country, be permitted to wield a free ballot in the interests of our common country and our free institutions?”

Langston ran for reelection in the fall of 1890. He ran against Democrat James F. Epes. Mahone still did not want Langston to run. Just like before, the campaign was not honest and fair.  Some voters felt like they could not cast their ballots safely. When the ballots were counted, Langston had 9,991 votes. Epes had 13,325 votes. Langston chose not to challenge the outcome. In 1892, The Republican Party nominated Langston for Congress. He chose not to run.

Later Years 

One of Langston’s most vocal critics was another important black leader. His name was Frederick Douglass. They had many differences beginning with how they were raised. Even so, they did not start out as rivals.  Their divisions grew during the 1870s. Things may have grown worse in 1884. That was when Douglass said unkind words about Frank Langston. Frank was one of Langston’s sons. He had been charged with murder and acquitted.

Langston and Douglass had very different views on Black emigration from the South. Freed people were moving from the South to the North or West. On the one hand, Langston viewed this as a positive way for people to be free and find new opportunities. Douglass, on the other hand, believed that freed people should stay in the South and farm the lands they knew. He thought this was the best way for them to succeed.

When Langston ran for election in 1888, Mahone tried to stop him. He knew that Douglass and Langston were rivals. He asked Douglass to write a letter saying that Langston should not run. Douglass agreed. His public letter backfired in Virginia. The local Black community was outraged. Langston became more popular in the Fourth District. Douglass’s words were also criticized in Black newspapers like the Richmond Planet and the New York Age.

John Mercer Langston’s Autobiography

Langston moved back to Washington, D.C. early in the 1890s. There, in 1894, he wrote his autobiography. He gave his book the title From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol. His grandnephew was the famous poet Langston Hughes. Hughes later shared a story about Langston’s grit in the face of discrimination. Local whites did not want Langston to pass through their part of the city. They set up a barrier to stop him. Hughes wrote that Langston, “got out, took his axe and chopped it down while the coachman held his gloves. From then on, without hindrance, he rode behind his snow-white horses through the street[s] of Washington.”

Langston practiced law for the rest of his life. He spoke out on issues of race and equality. He died at his home on November 15, 1897. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

Grade 8

Early Years

Langston was born free in Louisa County on December 14, 1829.

His father was a white planter named Ralph Quarles. His mother was his father’s mistress, Lucy Jane Langston. Quarles purchased and freed Lucy Jane Langston in 1806. She was of mixed African and American Indian ancestry. Langston later shared that his father had “peculiar and unusual” views about slavery. His parents had a genuine love for each other but could not legally marry in Virginia. They both died early in 1834. Langston later wrote that they were buried side by side.

Langston grew up with his guardian in Ohio. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1849. He earned a master’s degree in 1852. Then, in 1853, he graduated from the college’s seminary. Langston also studied law. He passed the bar in 1854. In 1855, he was elected as clerk of Brownhelm. He was one of the first African Americans to be elected to office in Ohio. Langston was an important part of Ohio’s new Republican Party. He also played a major role in the abolitionist movement. On October 25, 1854, Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall. They had three sons and two daughters. One of their daughters died as a child.

During the Civil War, Langston worked tirelessly. He registered for the draft in June 1863. He worked as a recruiter. He enlisted men to fight for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments. He also recruited men for the 5th Ohio Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Langston wanted to serve as a colonel in the United States Army. However, the war ended before he could obtain a commission.

In Higher Education

Langston traveled all over the South. He spoke before large Black and white audiences. He talked about the power of African American voting rights and education. In May 1867, he joined the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. He observed schools in Virginia. He became the bureau’s general inspector of schools a month later, on June 17. The next year, he became a law professor at Howard University. Howard is in Washington, D.C. In 1870, Langston was named dean of the law school. From December 1873 to July 1875, he served as vice president and acting president of the university. Howard gave an honorary law degree to Langston in 1874. 

Langston remained active in the Republican Party. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant asked him to join the Board of Health for the District of Columbia. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes asked him to serve as a diplomat. He made Langston the minister resident and consul general to Haiti. He served in this role until 1885. In 1883, Langston published a collection of his speeches. He gave his book the title Freedom and Citizenship.

On November 19, 1885, Virginia’s State Board of Education gave Langston a new job. He became president of a new school named the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. The school was the first state-supported college of its kind in the South. It was one of the first colleges in the South that taught and employed both men and women. One of its main goals was to prepare African American teachers for the state’s public school system. The school was later named Virginia State University.

Langston took office in January 1886. During his first year, the college had 150 students. It had one large building that had not been completed. The construction project faced financial mismanagement and scandal. Still, Langston did not give up. He was able to hold a teachers’ institute on the campus in the summer of 1886. This institute was required by the state. He convinced the General Assembly to provide funds to finish the main building. Langston expanded the teacher education program to include subjects like astronomy, civics, English literature, and rhetoric. He also established six new professorships.

During his second year, enrollment grew to almost 200 students. The summer institute in 1887 attracted 131 teachers. By then, however, power had shifted on the board of visitors. The new board clashed with Langston. They disagreed with his vision for the school’s future. The students publicly supported Langston.  However, on December 6, 1887, the board elected James H. Johnston to be president instead of Langston.

A Disputed Election

On January 2, 1888, the Republican Party held a conference. Langston traveled to Farmville to attend. While he was there, African Americans urged him to run for the House of Representatives. They wanted him to represent the Fourth District. Most of the people who lived in this district were Black. The district included the city of Petersburg and the counties of Amelia, Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Greensville, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Powhatan, Prince Edward, Prince George, and Sussex. Langston chose to run for the position. He sought the Republican Party nomination. The party’s white leader, William Mahone, opposed him. He was a former Confederate general. He supported a white Republican, Richard W. Arnold, instead. Mahone also had led a group of Black and white Republicans and Readjusters. This group passed the law that created the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. Even so, Mahone did not want African Americans to have too much power or rise too high.

The Republican Party held a convention in September. Party leaders listened to Mahone. He had great power. They nominated Arnold for the congressional seat. Langston still ran without his party’s support. He worked very hard. The district’s African Americans supported him, not Arnold. They disagreed with the party’s white leaders. When the ballots were counted, Arnold had only 3,207 votes. Langston had 12,657 votes. However, the Democratic Party nominee won the election. His name was Edward C. Venable. He had 13,298 votes.

Langston challenged the result after the Fifty-First Congress assembled in 1889. He used evidence to show that the people who ran the election were dishonest. They did not count the votes the correct way. The House of Representatives agreed. On September 23, 1890, they voted to unseat Venable. They awarded the seat to Langston. Leading up to the vote, Virginia Congressman Charles T. O’Ferrall persuaded the other Democrats to refuse to answer when the clerk called the roll. He hoped to stop the vote from taking place by the absence of a quorum. A quorum is the number of members that must be present to vote.  The Speaker of the House of Representatives finally ordered the clerk to record the silent Democrats as present. He declared Langston elected.

In Congress

Langston was the first African American to win a seat in Congress from Virginia. He actually served for about three months. His term lasted from September 23, 1890, to March 3, 1891, and Congress did not meet in October and November. Langston sat on the Committee on Education. He proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He wanted to change the rules for federal elections. His change would require people to pass a national literacy test in order to vote. He believed this could increase literacy for both Black and whites. He also proposed a bill to establish a national industrial university for African Americans. Both proposals failed.

Langston gave two speeches in the House of Representatives. One speech was about the merchant marine. The more important one was in support of the so-called Force Bill. This bill would have provided for supervision of federal elections to make sure African Americans were treated fairly. The Senate had refused to consider the bill. On January 16, 1891, Langston condemned Democrats for opposing full civil rights for all citizens, including southern white men. These men were also sometimes victims of voter frauds. Langston said, “The question is, shall every freeman, shall every American citizen, shall every American elector in the North and in the South, everywhere in the country, be permitted to wield a free ballot in the interests of our common country and our free institutions?”

Langston ran for reelection in the autumn of 1890. He ran against Democrat James F. Epes. Mahone still did not want Langston to run. Again, the campaign was likely dishonest.  Voters likely faced intimidation. When the ballots were counted, Langston had 9,991 votes. Epes had 13,325 votes. Langston chose not to challenge the outcome. In 1892, The Republican Party nominated Langston for Congress, but he chose not to run.

Later Years 

Langston’s 1888 campaign highlighted divisions between him and Frederick Douglass. Douglass was one of Langston’s most outspoken critics. Both were prominent African American leaders. They had personal and political differences. They had radically different upbringings, but they did not start out as rivals.  Their divisions grew in the mid-1870s. Things may have gotten worse by callous remarks that Douglass made in 1884. He spoke about one of Langston’s sons, Frank Langston. Frank had been tried for and ultimately acquitted of murder.

The two men disagreed on the subject of Black emigration from the South. Freed people were moving from the South to the North or West. On the one hand, Langston viewed this as a positive demonstration of their new freedom. Both physically and psychologically, freed people were searching for more opportunities. Douglass, on the other hand, believed that freed people should stay in the South and farm the lands they knew. He thought this was the best way for them to achieve prosperity.

By the 1888 election, Langston and Douglass viewed each other as rivals. So Mahone asked Douglass to write a letter opposing Langston’s candidacy. Douglass agreed. His public letter backfired in Virginia. It provoked outrage from the local Black community. It increased Langston’s popularity in the Fourth District. Douglass’s words also drew criticism from Black newspapers like the Richmond Planet as well as the New York Age.

John Mercer Langston’s Autobiography

Early in the 1890s, Langston moved back to Washington, D.C. There, in 1894, he published his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol. His grandnephew was the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Hughes later shared a story about Langston’s tenacity in the face of discrimination. Local whites had set up a barrier to stop Langston from passing through their section of the capital city. Hughes wrote that Langston, “got out, took his axe and chopped it down while the coachman held his gloves. From then on, without hindrance, he rode behind his snow-white horses through the street[s] of Washington.”

Langston continued to practice law. He spoke out on issues of race and political equality for the rest of his life. He died at his Washington home on November 15, 1897. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

Grades 11+

Early Years

The Admission to the Ohio Bar

Langston was born free in Louisa County on December 14, 1829. He was the youngest son of a white planter, Ralph Quarles, and his mistress, Lucy Jane Langston, whom he purchased and freed in 1806. She was of mixed African and American Indian ancestry. Langston later emphasized that the views of his father “with regard to slavery and the management of slaves upon a plantation by overseers, were peculiar and unusual.” The former enslaved woman and her former owner had a genuine love for each other but could not legally marry in Virginia. They both died early in 1834 and Langston later wrote that they were buried side by side.

Langston was taken to live with his guardian in Ohio, where Langston grew up and graduated from Oberlin College in 1849. He earned his MA in 1852 and graduated from the college’s seminary in 1853. He also studied law and in 1854 was admitted to the bar. In 1855, Langston won election as clerk of the township of Brownhelm, making him one of the first African Americans to hold elective office in Ohio. He quickly became a major figure in the abolitionist movement and in the state’s nascent Republican Party. In Oberlin, on October 25, 1854, Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall. They had three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in childhood.

During the Civil War, Langston worked tirelessly to recruit men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments as well as for the 5th Ohio Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. He registered for the draft in June 1863 and desired to serve as a colonel in the United States Army, but the war ended before he could obtain a commission.

In Higher Education

Educating the Freedmen.

Langston began traveling throughout the South, where he spoke before large Black and white audiences about the importance of African American suffrage and education. In May 1867 he joined the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as an agent observing schools in Virginia, and on June 17, 1867, he became the bureau’s general inspector of schools. The following year, he was appointed a law professor at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and he headed the department when it opened in January 1869. Named dean of the law school in 1870, Langston served as vice president and acting president of the university from December 1873 to July 1875. Howard awarded an honorary LLD to Langston in 1874. He continued to be active in the Republican Party, and in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him a member of the Board of Health for the District of Columbia. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him minister resident and consul general to Haiti, a post in which he served until resigning in 1885. In 1883 Langston published a collection of his speeches entitled Freedom and Citizenship.

Virginia’s State Board of Education appointed Langston president of the nascent Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University University), on November 19, 1885. He accepted in December and took office in January 1886 at the campus near Petersburg. One of the principal purposes of the institute, the first state-supported college of its kind in the South, was to prepare African American teachers for the state’s public school system. It was pioneering in the South, too, by being coeducational and by employing both male and female instructors.

First Graduating Class of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute

During Langston’s first year, the institute had 150 students, but its one large building had not been completed, and the financial management of the construction project had become mired in scandal. Nevertheless, he was able to continue a state-mandated teachers’ institute on the campus in the summer of 1886, and he persuaded the General Assembly to increase appropriations to finish the main building. Langston expanded the regular teacher education program to include such subjects as astronomy, civics, English literature, and rhetoric, and he established six new professorships.

Enrollment increased to almost 200 in his second year, and the summer institute in 1887 attracted 131 teachers. By then, however, unsympathetic Democrats in the assembly had replaced the Republican-appointed members of the board of visitors and the new board clashed with Langston over his vision for the school’s future. The students publicly supported Langston, but when the board of visitors met on December 6, 1887, less than a month before his contract expired, the board elected James H. Johnston to succeed Langston as president.

A Disputed Election

William Mahone

On January 2, 1888, Langston attended a Republican Party conference in Farmville, where African Americans urged him to run for the House of Representatives from the Fourth District. The district had a Black-majority population and encompassed the city of Petersburg and the counties of Amelia, Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Greensville, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Powhatan, Prince Edward, Prince George, and Sussex. Langston sought the Republican Party nomination, but the party’s white leader, the former Confederate general William Mahone, opposed him and supported a white Republican, Richard W. Arnold. Even though Mahone had been the principal organizer of a biracial coalition of Republicans and Readjusters that had enacted the law that created the normal institute, he balked at allowing African Americans to rise high in the party’s ranks.

As a consequence of Mahone’s influence within the party, Arnold won the nomination at the September convention, but Langston campaigned for the congressional seat vigorously as an independent Republican. The district’s African Americans supported him rather than Arnold against the wishes of the party’s white leaders, and when the ballots were counted, Arnold had received a mere 3,207 votes and Langston 12,657. But the Democratic Party nominee, Edward C. Venable, was declared the victor with 13,298 votes.

Charles T. O'Ferrall

Langston challenged the result after the Fifty-First Congress assembled in 1889 and presented a massive amount of evidence of dishonesty in the conduct of the election and in the tabulation of the votes. Democrats replied with charges of Republican misconduct, too, but on September 23, 1890, the House of Representatives voted to unseat Venable and awarded the seat to Langston. During the preliminaries to the vote, Virginia Congressman Charles T. O’Ferrall, hoping to prevent action by the absence of a quorum, persuaded the other Democrats to refuse to answer when the clerk called the roll. The Speaker of the House of Representatives finally ordered the clerk to record the silent Democrats as present and declared Langston elected.

In Congress

The first African American to win a seat in Congress from Virginia, Langston actually served only from September 23, 1890, to March 3, 1891, and Congress was not in session in October and November during that time. During the session, he sat on the Committee on Education. He proposed a national literacy test to vote in federal elections as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which he believed could increase literacy for both Black and whites, and introduced a bill to establish a national industrial university for African Americans. Both proposals failed.

Making His First Speech in the House of Representatives

Langston delivered two speeches in the House of Representatives, one on the merchant marine, and the more important one on January 16, 1891, in support of the so-called Force Bill that the Senate had refused to consider. It would have provided for supervision of federal elections to guarantee African Americans fair treatment. Langston condemned Democrats for opposing full civil rights for all citizens, including southern white men who were also sometimes victims of voter fraud. “The question,” Langston stated, “is, shall every freeman, shall every American citizen, shall every American elector in the North and in the South, everywhere in the country, be permitted to wield a free ballot in the interests of our common country and our free institutions?”

Despite continued opposition from Mahone, Langston ran for reelection in the autumn of 1890 against Democrat James F. Epes in another campaign that probably featured fraud and intimidation of voters. The official tally was 9,991 for Langston and 13,325 for Epes, but Langston chose not to challenge the outcome. The Republican Party again nominated Langston for Congress in 1892, but he declined to run.

Later Years

Frederick Douglass

Langston’s 1888 campaign highlighted personal and political differences between him and Frederick Douglass, one of his most outspoken critics. The radically different upbringings of the two prominent African American leaders had not, at first, brought them into conflict. The men possibly saw each other as rivals by the mid-1870s, and the division may have been intensified by callous remarks that Douglass made in 1884 concerning one of Langston’s sons, Frank Langston, who had been tried for and ultimately acquitted of murder.

The two men diverged politically on the subject of Black emigration from the South. On the one hand, Langston viewed emigration by freedpeople to the North or West as a positive demonstration of exercising their new freedom, both physically and psychologically, in search of expanded opportunities. Douglass, on the other hand, believed that the best way for freedpeople to achieve prosperity was to remain in the South and farm the lands they knew.

Whatever the reasons, by 1888 they viewed each other as rivals, and in 1888 Mahone asked Douglass to write a letter opposing Langston’s candidacy. Douglass agreed, and his public letter provoked outrage from the local Black community in Virginia and increased Langston’s popular appeal in the Fourth District. Furthermore, Douglass’s public opposition to Langston’s candidacy drew criticism from Black newspapers like the Richmond Planet as well as the New York Age.

John Mercer Langston’s Autobiography

Early in the 1890s, Langston moved back to Washington, D.C., where he published his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, in 1894. His grandnephew, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, later memorialized his tenacity in the face of discrimination in describing Langston’s response when local whites erected a barrier to prevent him from passing through their section of the capital city. Langston, “got out, took his axe and chopped it down while the coachman held his gloves. From then on, without hindrance, he rode behind his snow-white horses through the street[s] of Washington.”

Langston continued to practice law and speak out on issues of race and political equality until he died at his Washington home on November 15, 1897. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

Major Works

  • Freedom and Citizenship (1883)
  • From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol (1894)
MAP
TIMELINE
December 14, 1829
John Mercer Langston is born free in Louisa County. He is the son a white planter and his free black mistress.
1834
Ralph Quarles, a white planter, and Lucy Jane Langston, his free black mistress, both die. They were the parents of John Mercer Langston.
1849
John Mercer Langston graduates with a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College.
1852
John Mercer Langston graduates with a master's degree from Oberlin College.
1854
John Mercer Langston is admitted to the Ohio bar.
October 25, 1854
John Mercer Langston and Caroline Matilda Wall marry, in Oberlin, Ohio. They will have three sons and two daughters.
1855
John Mercer Langston wins election as clerk of the township of Brownhelm, Ohio, making him one of the first African Americans to hold elective office in Ohio.
June 1863
John Mercer Langston registers for the draft and seeks an officer's commission, but the Civil War ends before he receives one.
May 1867
John Mercer Langston joins the Freedmen's Bureau as an agent observing schools in Virginia.
June 17, 1867
John Mercer Langston becomes the Freedmen's Bureau's general inspector of schools.
1868
Howard University, in Washington, D.C., appoints John Mercer Langston a law professor.
January 1869
When it opens, John Mercer Langston is head of the law department at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
1870
Howard University, in Washington, D.C., appoints John Mercer Langston dean of its law school.
1871
President Ulysses S. Grant appoints John Mercer Langston a member of the Board of Health for the District of Columbia.
December 1873—July 1875
John Mercer Langston serves as vice president and acting president of Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
1874
Howard University, in Washington, D.C., awards John Mercer Langston an honorary LLD.
1877—1885
In the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes, John Mercer Langston serves as minister resident and consul general to Haiti.
1883
John Mercer Langston publishes a collection of his speeches entitled Freedom and Citizenship.
November 19, 1885
Virginia's State Board of Education appoints John Mercer Langston president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University).
December 6, 1887
The board of visitors for Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute elects James H. Johnston to succeed John Mercer Langston as president.
1888
At the behest of William Mahone, Frederick Douglass writes a letter opposing the congressional candidacy of John Mercer Langston.
January 2, 1888
John Mercer Langston attends a Republican Party conference in Farmville, where he is urged to run for Congress. He does not win the party's nomination but decides to run as an independent Republican.
November 1888
Edward C. Venable, a Democrat, defeats John Mercer Langston, an independent Republican, in the race for Congress.
1889
John Mercer Langston presents evidence to Congress that his election loss was the result of fraud.
September 23, 1890
The House of Representatives votes to unseat Edward C. Venable and seat John Mercer Langston, citing election fraud.
September 23, 1890—March 3, 1891
John Mercer Langston serves as Virginia's first African American congressman.
November 1890
James F. Epes, a Democrat, defeats John Mercer Langston, a Republican, for a seat in the House of Representatives.
January 16, 1891
John Mercer Langston speaks in the House of Representatives in support of the so-called Force Bill, which would supervise elections to guarantee blacks fair treatment.
1892
The Republican Party nominates John Mercer Langston for Congress but he declines to run.
1894
From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, a memoir by John Mercer Langston, is published.
November 15, 1897
John Mercer Langston dies at his home in Washington, D.C.
FURTHER READING
  • Bromberg, Alan B. “John Mercer Langston: Black Congressman from the Old Dominion.” Virginia Cavalcade 30 (1980): 60–67.
  • Cheek, William. “A Negro Runs for Congress: John Mercer Langston and the Virginia Campaign of 1888.” Journal of Negro History 52 (1967):14–34.
  • Cheek, William. “John Mercer Langston: Black Protest Leader and Abolitionist.” Civil War History 16 (1970): 101–120.
  • Cheek, William Francis, and Aimee Lee Cheek. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829–65. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
  • Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro. “From the Ashes of the Old Dominion: Accommodation, Immediacy, and Progressive Pragmatism in John Mercer Langston’s Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 117, no. 3 (2009): 215–249.
  • Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro. The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
  • Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, or The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion. Hartford, Connecticut: American Publishing Company, 1894.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Mercer Langston (1829–1897). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/langston-john-mercer-1829-1897.
MLA Citation:
Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Mercer Langston (1829–1897)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Feb. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 05
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