From Ohio History Central
John Mercer Langston was the first African-American man to pass Ohio's bar exam. He also was an outspoken advocate of equal rights for African Americans with whites.
Langston was born on December 14, 1829, in Louisa County, Virginia. His father, Ralph Quarles, was a wealthy white man, and his mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated slave. Both of Langston's parents died from various illnesses in 1834. Langston went to live with one of his father's friends, William Gooch, in Chillicothe, Ohio. In 1838, Gooch moved to Missouri, a slave state. Fearing that he might lose his inheritance if he accompanied Gooch, Langston remained in Ohio, settling in Cincinnati. In 1843, he enrolled in Oberlin College's Preparatory Department. The Preparatory Department was the equivalent of a high school. Langston eventually enrolled in the college program at Oberlin, graduating in 1849. Langston was the fifth African-American man to graduate from Oberlin. He then enrolled in Oberlin's School of Theology, earning a Master's degree. Because of his race, Langston was denied admittance to law school. Undeterred, he studied the law privately with attorney Philemon Bliss in Elyria, Ohio. Langston passed the bar exam in 1854, becoming Ohio's first African-American attorney.
Upon becoming attorney, Langston established a law practice in Brownhelm, Ohio. While living at Brownhelm, Langston also embarked upon a career in politics, winning election as the town's clerk. In 1856, he moved to Oberlin, where he continued to practice law. He served on the Oberlin Town Council from 1865 to 1867 and on the school board from 1867 to 1868. Before the American Civil War, Langston actively assisted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. He also supported and helped plan John Brown's raid upon Harper's Ferry, although he did not personally participate in the attack. During the Civil War, he helped recruit African-American soldiers for the Union war effort. Langston helped form the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments, as well as the 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Langston also called upon the federal government to grant African-American men the right to vote. He became the leader of the National Equal Rights League in 1864, and in this position, Langston organized suffrage campaigns in several states, including in Ohio.
Following the Civil War, Langston continued to be an advocate for equal rights for blacks with whites. He joined the Freedman's Bureau, serving as this federal agency's Educational Inspector. Upon leaving this position in 1868, Langston organized the law school of Howard University in Washington, DC. He permitted both women and racial minorities to enroll. From 1875 to 1883, he served as the United States Consul-General to Haiti, and in 1885, Langston became the president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. In 1888, he won election to the United States House of Representative. He was the first African American from Virginia elected to the U.S. Congress, but he failed to win reelection in 1890. He retired from public life in 1894.
Langston died on November 15, 1897. His life illustrates the discrimination that many African Americans faced in the nineteenth century. It also illustrates the dramatic increase in rights that blacks experienced during this same time period.
- Cheek, William and Aimee Lee Cheek. John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom 1829-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
- Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1969.