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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

First African American Lawyer University President John Mercer Langston Appointed in 1873

Civil Rights activist John Mercer Langston (1829-97) was the first African American lawyer to serve as a president of a University. Langston had an interesting life between his political engagement, private law practice, and academia. Between 1848 and the 1860s, Langston was an important organizer and orator in the black civil rights movement in Ohio and across the North, an activist on the underground railroad, and prior to the Civil War he was one of the most prominent African Americans.

In 1873 John Mercer Langston was tapped as Vice President and Acting President of Howard University, after he had organized and established the University’s Law Department in 1869 where he was the first African American appointed to the law faculty, and the first law dean. Although he applied for the presidency in 1875, the trustees dismissed his candidacy which was believed to be on racial grounds, and also due to his non-membership in an evangelical church, so Langston resigned. In 1886 he was named president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now known as Virginia State University), an Historically Black College and University.

His parents were Lucy Jane Langston, and African American slave and Captain Ralph Quarles, a plantation owner who enslaved his mother. Quarles emancipated Lucy in 1806 and John Mercer Langston was born in 1829. He lived with his parents on the plantation until 1834 (when both of his parents died and he inherited part of his father’s estate). He and his brother were then sent to Ohio where they lived with friends of his father (William Gooch) for five years until that family decided to move to Missouri (a slave state) so his brother sued for the Gooch family to relinquish custody in order to protect Langston’s estate. Langston attended privately funded black schools (since he was barred from public schools which were for white students only). In 1840 he moved to Cincinnati where he was exposed to strong antislavery rhetoric in the pre-Civil War North and where he witnessed the violent race riots of 1841 and the restrictive “Black Laws.”

John Mercer Langston graduated from Oberlin College in 1849, and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Theology at Oberlin after he was unable to gain admission to a law school as a black man. Still wanting to be a lawyer, Langston studied law under lawyer Philemon E. Bliss of Elyira and in 1854 he became the first black person to be admitted to the bar in Ohio. A year later, in 1855 he was elected as township clerk near Oberlin, and functioned as the township attorney. He was subsequently elected to the city council and to the Board of Education in Oberlin. He practiced law in Ohio and was an active member of the Republican party. In 1858 at the Cincinnati Colored Convention, Langston was a prominent leader in the debate where, among other things, he advocated for stronger education standards as a way for Blacks to use political capital. In 1864 Langston chaired a committee calling for the abolition of slavery, support for racial unity and self-help, and equality before the law – this agenda was adopted by the black National Convention. This also led to the establishment of the National Equal Rights League, of which Langston was elected President until 1868.

In 1869 Langston left Ohio for Washington, DC where he became the inspector general for the education and abandoned lands for the Feedman’s Bureau. After his time in academia, Langston was elected to Congress in 1888 (serving from 1889 to 1891)making him the first black member of Congress elected from the Commonwealth of Virginia. He practiced law in Washington, DC from 1891 until his death in 1897.

For more information on John Mercer Langston see:

William and Aimee Lee Cheek are the authors of John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-1865 (University of Illinois Press, 1989).


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