One of the most prominent African Americans in the United States before and during the Civil War, John Mercer Langston was as famous as his political nemesis, Frederick Douglass.1 One of the first African Americans to hold elective office in the United States (he became Brownhelm, Ohio, township clerk in 1855), Langston topped off his long political career by becoming the first black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.
John Mercer Langston was born free in Louisa, Virginia, on December 14, 1829.2 His father, Ralph Quarles, was a plantation owner and had been a captain in the Revolutionary War. Langston's mother, Lucy, was a free Native American–black woman who had been Ralph Quarles's slave. Quarles emancipated Lucy and their daughter, Maria, in 1806. Lucy Langston left Quarles shortly after she was freed and had three children outside their relationship: William, Harriet, and Mary Langston. The couple later reunited, though state law forbade them to marry, and had three more children: Gideon, Charles Henry, and John Mercer. When John Langston's parents died in 1834, his father's estate was divided among his three sons and held in trust. Four–year–old John Langston moved in with a family friend, William Gooch, and his family in Chillicothe, Ohio. When Langston was 10 years old, Gooch made plans to move to Missouri, then a slave state. John's half brother, William, sued to relinquish Gooch's custody over his brother, fearing the move would jeopardize John's freedom and his substantial inheritance. The court prevented Gooch from taking the child to Missouri, and Langston became the ward of Richard Long, an abolitionist who had purchased William Gooch's Ohio farm.3 In 1840, John Langston's brother Gideon brought John to live with him in Cincinnati. One of the city's leading black figures, Gideon ensured that his brother received a good education. In Cincinnati, John Langston heard some of the strongest antislavery rhetoric in the pre–Civil War North, and experienced the violent race riots of 1841 and the restrictive "Black Laws" imposed as a consequence.4 In 1843, William Langston took custody of John and returned with him to Chillicothe. John's older brothers and their colleagues, who were among the first black graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio, inspired him to attend their alma mater. Langston received a B.A. in 1849 and an M.A. in theology in 1852. Langston wanted to become a lawyer, a profession only three black men in the nation had officially achieved nationwide in the early 1850s. After two law schools denied him admission, he studied under local abolitionists in Elyria, Ohio. In September 1854, a committee on the district court confirmed his knowledge of the law, deeming him "nearer white than black," and admitted him to the Ohio bar. He commenced his practice in Brownhelm, Ohio.5 In 1854, he married Caroline Wall, also a former student at Oberlin, who was active in the abolitionist movement and the Liberty Party.6 The couple raised five children: Arthur, Ralph, Chinque, Nettie, and Frank.7
Langston's political involvement started with the Ohio conventions. A series of public meetings held statewide by prominent African Americans, the conventions called for the enfranchisement of black men and promoted their political participation. In 1852, Langston officially allied himself with the Free Democrats, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Law, allowed black delegates at their conventions, and elected Frederick Douglass as the national party secretary.8 Langston's political career soared throughout the 1850s and 1860s. On April 22, 1855, he became one of the first African Americans elected to public office in the United States when Brownhelm Township voted him clerk on the Liberty Party ticket.9 In 1856, he left Brownhelm for Oberlin and served on the town's board of education. During the Civil War, Langston recruited black soldiers in the Midwest. He never served in the Union Army, but hired a substitute to take his place—a practice common among wealthy white men.10 Following the war, he served on the Oberlin city council. In 1867, Langston served as Inspector General of the Freedmen's Bureau, touring the postwar South and encouraging freedmen to seek educational opportunities. He regularly spoke out against segregated facilities, including churches.11
For the first two decades of the postwar era, Langston held prominent political and educational appointments. In 1868, he returned to Washington, DC, where he established the law department at Howard University, a new college founded to educate African Americans. In the early 1870s, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sought Langston's aid in drafting his Civil Rights Bill. In 1871, Langston received an appointment from President Ulysses S. Grant (for whom he had campaigned in 1868) to the District of Columbia Board of Health. Langston served as Howard University's dean from 1868 to 1875 and from 1874 to 1875 as vice president and acting president of Howard; however, he resigned from the university when the board of trustees failed to offer him a full term as president.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston resident minister to Haiti and chargé d'affaires in Santo Domingo. Following his departure in 1885, Langston petitioned the Court of Claims for over $7,000 withheld from him after the Democratically controlled House appropriated less than his fixed diplomatic salary. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1886. From 1885 to 1887, Langston served as president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in Petersburg. He left after the college's board of governors fell into Democratic hands.
Settling in south–central Virginia, Langston was viewed as a celebrity by his black neighbors. In 1888, a citizen's committee asked Langston to run for a seat in the U.S. House, representing the "Black Belt of Virginia," a region whose population was 65 percent black.12 Although Langston had been assured that his nomination and election were nearly guaranteed, he began an aggressive campaign for the Republican ticket.13 Langston lobbied both white and black delegates to the district convention at a lavish party hosted by several prominent black women in Petersburg.14 His efforts were thwarted by strong opposition from white Republicans led by scalawag Confederate General William Mahone, a central figure in Virginia Republican politics.15 Using his formidable power over district Republicans—both black and white—Mahone orchestrated a separate district convention, excluding Langston's supporters, to nominate white candidate Judge R. W. Arnold. Though his appeal for support from the National Republican Executive Committee was unsuccessful, Langston obtained the backing of a biracial committee of district Republicans, entered the race as an Independent Republican, and methodically canvassed the district.16
The election brought out stark racial divisions. Democratic candidate Edward Venable refused to share a debate platform with Langston throughout the campaign.17 Moreover, because Langston's candidacy threatened to divide the Republican vote, several prominent African Americans campaigned against him.18 Frederick Douglass, chief among Langston's detractors, wrote a letter denouncing his candidacy, and the Mahone faction spread copies throughout the district.19 On Election Day, Langston dispatched supporters to monitor every precinct for irregularities. His lieutenants instructed voters to say Langston's name after voting, as evidence of their support. Separate lines for blacks and whites at the polls meant black voters had to wait as long as three hours to vote. Ballot boxes were allegedly emptied of Langston's votes; Langston's supporters were not permitted to witness the count.20 As predicted, the Republican vote split; initial results indicated that Langston lost by 641 votes to Venable. Arnold was a distant third.21
Langston contested the result in the House. At first, he had trouble hiring a lawyer; most attorneys in the district were white, and even sympathetic Republicans feared social and political ostracism.22 Langston finally hired a biracial team of lawyers (the white lawyers charged an exorbitant fee). The case took several twists. One of Langston's witnesses was cross–examined for six days, an incident Langston interpreted as a stalling tactic.23 Langston meanwhile tried to mend political fences in his district and even agreed to work on Mahone's gubernatorial campaign.24 The Republican majority on the Committee on Elections ruled in Langston's favor on June 16, 1890, but the whole House delayed hearing his case for three months.25 Democrats repeatedly blocked the case from coming to a vote on the floor, primarily by vacating the chamber to prevent a quorum, leaving only a few Members to address their interests.26
On September 23, 1890, Langston's case finally came to a vote before a crowded gallery occupied primarily by African Americans.27 All but nine of the 152 Democratic Members retired to the hallway to avoid a quorum. But Republican discipline prevailed; the majority doggedly mustered enough Members, primarily from their own ranks.28 Over Democratic protests that a quorum was not present, the House declared Langston the winner in a lopsided vote of 151 to 1.29 The vote gave Langston Venable's seat for the remaining seven months of the Congress. Most Democratic Members boycotted Langston's swearing in a few minutes later, but a few offered him cordial congratulations upon re–entering the chamber.30
Langston's experience in higher learning earned him a position on the Committee on Education.31 He immediately assisted the Republican majority by voting in favor of the controversial McKinley Tariff, a protective measure designed to drive up the price of cheap goods manufactured abroad. A Democratic newspaper commented that Langston's position on tariffs represented "a wall about the country so high and so great that the British lion would never have been able to get over it without the aid of dynamite or a scaling ladder."32
Only one week after arriving in Congress, Langston had to return home to campaign for re–election. Despite their previous "truce," William Mahone, now the governor, refused to support Langston as his district's Republican candidate. Antagonized by Langston's Independent run for office in 1888, Mahone accused him of purposely dividing the electorate by race.33 Langston responded that Mahone was blinded by racism and "almost a Democrat."34 The district convention backed Langston, whose strong support was primarily from the black population. Republican newspaper accounts indicate that President Benjamin Harrison, congressional Republicans, and the GOP national leadership supported Langston's re–election.35 However, many white Republicans in the district followed Mahone's lead and abandoned Langston, in some measure because of his unpopular vote on the McKinley Tariff.36 Langston lost the election to Democratic candidate James Epes by about 3,000 votes in the state's first Democratic sweep since before secession.37 Democratic newspapers blamed black voters' apathy for their party's solid victory in the state, but the contest mirrored a national trend: From nearly a 20–Member deficit, Democrats in the U.S. House captured a 100–Member majority.38 Langston believed the election was tainted by fraud—as evidenced by long lines for black Republicans at the polls, missing ballots in black strongholds, and undue pressure by Mahone supporters.39 But he feared contesting the election in the strongly Democratic Congress would be expensive.40
Returning in December 1890 as a lame duck to his first full session in Congress, Langston made his first speech on January 16, 1891. He emphasized blacks' U.S. citizenship, condemning calls for foreign emigration and what he deemed the Democratic Party's attempt to thwart black freedom. "Abuse us as you will, gentlemen," Langston told Democrats, "we will increase and multiply until, instead of finding every day five hundred black babies turning their bright eyes to greet the rays of the sun, the number shall be five thousand and still go on increasing. There is no way to get rid of us. This is our native country." Frequent, loud applause from the Republican side of the chamber interrupted Langston's speech. Newspapers admitted that Langston's speech rambled, but deemed him one of the most eloquent speakers on the House Floor.41 One day after his speech, Langston asked the U.S. Attorney General to send the House all documentation of suits on alleged violations of voting rights.42 The Judiciary Committee agreed to Langston's resolution, and it was adopted in the whole House. However, the Attorney General's office never complied, and the disfranchisement of southern freedmen continued.
Not all of Langston's legislative efforts were successful. Langston submitted bills to establish a national industrial university to teach blacks useful labor skills and to observe as national holidays the birthdays of former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, but the bills died in committee.43 Langston was unable to secure the appointments of several black candidates to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.44 On February 27, 1891, Langston returned to the House Floor to debate a civil appropriations bill. He used his experience as a diplomat in the Caribbean to advocate protection for American shipping interests.45
Langston returned to Petersburg, Virginia, at the end of the 51st Congress. In 1892, Republicans in his Virginia district asked him to run again, but he refused, noting that a white candidate would likely have more success. He continued to be active in politics, often speaking publicly about the achievements of his race.46 Promised a federal judicial appointment as well as several Treasury Department patronage positions, Langston began campaigning for President Benjamin Harrison's re–election in 1892; however, when the administration withdrew the promised positions, he backed rival Republican James G. Blaine's quest for the nomination. Langston spent the remainder of his life traveling between Petersburg and Washington and working on his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, which was published in 1894. Langston died at home in Washington, DC, on November 15, 1897.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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