Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Personality Spotlight: John Mercer Langston

O.K., I will finally try to get away from posting on John Brown and his place in American history for a few days. But, it isn't surprising to find out that John Brown's tree of influence did touch many lives in the mid-19th century who attempted to bring citizenship and political rights to African Americans. One such man was John Mercer Langston.

Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. His mother, Lucy Langston, was a free woman with an Indian and African heritage. Like many blacks that would eventually make the fight for abolition and equality, John Mercer Langston was the son of a white man. Ralph Quarles, a wealthy Virginia planter, was Langston's father. When Langston was about five years old both his mother and father died of unrelated illnesses and he was left with a sizable inheritance.

A friend of Quarles, William Gooch, who lived in Ohio took in Langston and his two brothers Charles and Gideon and cared for them. In 1838 Gooch moved to Missouri; a slave state. It was determined that it would be best for Langston to stay in free state Ohio, so he settled in the tight knit free black community in Cincinnati. He enrolled at Oberlin College at age 14, and graduated in 1849. In 1848 he made his first public speech at the request of Frederick Douglass. Langston was admitted to graduate school at Oberlin and obtained a Masters degree in Theology, but unable to gain admission to law school, he read law under Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854; making him the first black lawyer in Ohio.

In the years between earning his position as an attorney and the Civil War, Langston organized efforts to resist the fugitive slave law and assisted slaves making their way to Canada from the slave states. He married Caroline Wall in 1854, also an Oberlin student of similar background, and stated a law office in Brownhelm, Ohio. Langston moved back to Oberlin in 1856 and started a practice there. He became active in Republican Party politics, advocated armed resistance to slavery, and supported John Brown's antislavery operations.

During the Civil War Langston served as recruiter of black troops when they were finally allowed to serve in the Union army. He helped recruit Ohio for the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry as well as Ohio USCT regiments. The Reconstruction years saw Langston as active as ever. He organized efforts for citizenship, black suffrage, and served as an eduction inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1868 Langston established the law department at Howard University in Washington D.C. In the 1870s he served as consul to Haiti for eight years, then returned to the United States to be named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) in Petersburg.

In 1888 he briefly served in the United States House of Representatives before losing the following election. In his last years Langston wrote his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital, before passing away on November 15, 1897.

1 comment:

  1. Tim,

    Lovely blog. I work with the Louisa County Historical Society and had the great privilege of taking some of Ralph Quarles' (JML's father)descendants to the old home site and graveyard this summer. We are accumulating a fair amount of information on him in our archives. Thought I would send a post to say so for you or anyone who might want to know.
    Elaine Taylor, Director of the Sargeant Museum of Louisa County History www.louisahistory.org