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Black History: Remembering John Mercer Langston

Many of us will be most familiar with the name of John Mercer Langston because of the Langston Golf Course (2600 Bennng Rd. NE) and nearby neighborhood, Lagston Carver, that still bear his name.

Langston was the first Black man elected to represent Virginia in Congress. He was also the last Black man to do so for a hundred years more. And that’s not even his greatest contribution to American history.

Historian William Cheek has called Langston “the Obama before Obama.”

Childhood

John Mercer Langston was born in 1829 to a freedwoman and a White planter. Although some contemporary articles say he was born a slave, historians generally agree that his mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated slave who moved in with White planter Ralph Quarles and bore four chldren by him. John was the youngest.

Both parents died when Langston was four. However, Quarles provided for the education of his sons at Oberlin Normal School. Langston and his siblings were the first Black students to attend.

He was, however, denied entry to multiple law schools on the basis of his race. Instead, Langston read law under an abolitionist attorney and was the first Black person admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854 –with arbitors admittedly citing his light-colored skin as one justification.

After graduating, Langston and his brothers worked to help slaves reach the north and freedom, founding the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. They were key in the escape of runaway John Price, for which Langston’s older brother Charles was tried and convicted under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Congressman John Mercer Livingston. Photo: C.M. Bell. 1873-1916. Library of Congress.

Post-War Work

After the war, John Mercer Langston was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1868, Langston moved to DC to establish a Law School at Howard University, the first Black law school in the country. He became acting president of the school in 1872. But the next year, he lost the election for president on what Cheek calls “a strictly racial ballot.” The entire faculty resigned in protest.

Langston later served on the District Board of Health, where he drafted the sanitation code for the District. He was on the dias at the 1876 dedication of the Emancipation Monument in Lincoln Park, seated beside his friend Frederick Douglass (the two later had a falling-out over family matters).

In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes appointed Langston as U.S. Minister to Haiti. In 1882, the Democrat-controlled Senate reduced his pay by one third as punishment for Langston’s efforts on behalf of Presidential candidate James A. Garfield. When Langston resigned, he submitted a bill to the government for $8,000 in outstanding salary, a claim upheld by the US Supreme Court. It was not the last time he would have to fight the federal government to get his due.

In 1888, having established a political base in Virginia as President of what is now Virginia State University, Langston ran as a Republican for a seat in the House of Representatives. His Democrat opponent was declared the winner, but Langston contested the election on the basis of voter intimidation and fraud.

Langston won his fight after 18 months. Supporters came out to celebrate, leading Langston to make a speech from the porch of his cottage at Howard Univesity. He took his seat as Representative of Virginia’s Fourth District for the last 6 months of his term. But Langston lost in the next election, as Democrats had regained control of the south.

His first speech in the House was made Jan. 18 1861 in support of “the Force Bill,” which would have provided supervision of federal elections to ensure equal access to the vote in face of Democratic attempts to suppress Black votes. The House passed the bill, but the Senate refused to consider it.

“Do you think the negro [sic] would have come to this country to find slavery when the white man came here to find liberty?” Langston asked the House. Now that the war had ended, Langston argued, a Black man was the equal “of his [W]hite fellow-citizens.”

Establishing the right of Black men (if not women) to the rights of citizenship, which includes the vote, Langston warned that the power of that vote would only increase:

“I give my Democratic friends warning that they may press us as much as they will, but still we shall remain. Abuse us as you will, gentlemen, we will increase and multiply until, instead of finding every day five hundred [B]lack babies turning up their bright eyes to greet the rays of the sun, the number shall be five thousand and shall go on increasing.

There is no way to get rid of us.”

Langston was only one of five Black congressman elected in the Jim Crow era. He was the first Black man elected from Virginia and the last until Bobby Scott was elected in 1992.

From 1891-1897, Langston practiced law in DC. He died Nov. 15, 1897 at his home in at 2225 Fourth St NW. The address is now the location of the Bethune Residence Complex at Howard University.

Legacy

The Langston name became famous again in the twentieth century, when Langston’s great-nephew, poet and novelist Langston Hughes, ascended to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s.

Hughes once told a story about his great-uncle. As Congressman, Langston would be driven by coachman from his Howard University residence to the Capitol in a rubber-tired carriage pulled by two snow-white horses. As recounted by William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, Hughes said that White residents “did not relish seeing a Negro [sic] ride in such style.” 

One his way to Congress one day, Langston found his path blocked by a wooden barricade and he was forced to turn around, Hughes said. A few days later, Langston stopped at a hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue to buy an axe. As attributed to Hughes in the article:

When his carriage arrived at the barrier, he dismounted, handed his gloves to the coachmen, took the ax and proceeded with all deliberate speed to chop it down.”
[…]
John Mercer Langston, his kinsman recollected, “did not believe in barriers.”

The other celebration of Langston is, of course, the golf course that bears his name. Under the shadow of segregation, the Langston Golf Course was built to service the nearby African American community, opening June 9, 1939. According to NPS, when Langston opened it was one of only twenty golf courses in all of the United States open to Black American gofters. White golfers had 680 different courses to choose from.

But there are other memorials to Langston. In his lifetime, the town of Langston, Oklahoma, initially founded by Kansas politician Edward McCabe, was named for him. Langston Golf Course was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. The Oberlin, Ohio home built by John Mercer Langston in 1855 is also a National Historic Landmark.

Langston is now interred at Woodlawn Cemetery (4611 Benning Rd. NE).

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