John Mercer Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County Virginia, the youngest of four children. His father, Ralph Quarles, was a wealthy white planter and slaveholder, while his mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated slave of Indian and Black ancestry. Both his parents died in 1834 after brief, unrelated illnesses, and Quarles left Langston a sizable inheritance which ensured his financial independence.
William Gooch, a friend of Quarles who lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, took in Langston and his brothers Charles and Gideon. In 1838, Gooch wished to move his family to Missouri--a slave state--and since the courts ruled that Langston's inheritance would be threatened if he accompanied them, John Mercer Langston moved to Cincinnati, where he became enamored of the tight-knit community of freedmen which persisted in the face of relentless bigotry.
At the age of 14, Langston enrolled in the Preparatory Department at Oberlin College, and while there he excelled in the art of debate. He graduated from the Collegiate Department in 1849, only the fifth black man to do so. Inspired by his experiences in Cincinnati, he involved himself in the black rights movement, and in 1848, at the invitation of Frederick Douglass, Langston delivered an impromptu speech to the National Black Convention in Cleveland, condemning those who refused to help fugitive slaves.
Langston enrolled in the graduate program in Theology at Oberlin in preparation for later legal study. He obtained a Master's degree, but as a black man he was denied entry to law school. Embittered but undeterred, he read law under Philemon Bliss of Elyria and in 1854 he passed the Bar Exam, becoming the first black lawyer in Ohio.
His special interest and commitment to black freedom continued to flourish, and with the aid of his brothers Gideon and Charles, Langston organized antislavery societies at both the state and local level. He also helped runaway slaves to escape along the Ohio section of the Underground Railroad. But Langston was also a proponent for women's rights and temperance.
After marrying Caroline Wall, a senior in the literary department at Oberlin, Langston settled in Brownhelm, OH and established a law practice. He quickly involved himself in town matters and won election to the post of Town Clerk, perhaps the first African American elected to public office in the United States. In 1856, Langston moved to Oberlin, where he again involved himself in town government, serving as a city councilman from 1865-1867, and on the Board of Education from 1867-1868.
His law practice established and respected, Langston handled legal matters for the town, and vigilantly supported Republican candidates for local and national office. He is credited with helping to steer the Ohio Republican party towards radicalism and a strong antislavery position. But Langston grew increasingly frustrated with resistance to his ideas. In 1852 he advocated black resettlement, yet two years later he reversed his position; he advocated armed resistance, and conspired with John Brown to raid Harpers Ferry, but declined to participate.
With the coming of the Civil War, Langston organized black volunteers for the Union cause. As chief recruiter in the West, he assembled the Massachusetts 54th, the nation's first black regiment, and the Massachusetts 55th and the 5th Ohio. Later in the war, Langston sought military commission, that he might lead a group of black soldiers in battle. His request found support in upper ranks of the Army, but the war ended before the order could be executed.
Selected by the Black National Convention to lead the National Equal Rights League in 1864, Langston carried out extensive suffrage campaigns in Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. Langston's vision was realized in 1867, with Congressional approval of suffrage for black males. Langston saw that the rights of newly freed slaves were protected as Educational Inspector for the Freedman's Bureau, He traveled throughout the South advocating educational opportunity, political equality and economic justice coupled with individual responsibility. His addresses were well received by blacks and whites alike and propelled him to national prominence.
In 1868, Langston organized the Law department at Howard University in Washington, and, in the tradition of Oberlin, made its hallmark race and gender diversity. Later he served as Acting President. His 1875 bid to attain the presidency of the school failed, as the trustees dismissed his candidacy on racial grounds. For the eight years that followed, Langston served as consul-general in Haiti. He returned to the States after a contract dispute and assumed the presidency of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1885.
Langston again bolstered his national reputation in 1888, running as an independent for a seat in the US House of Representatives. His victory was contested for 18 months and he served for 6 months before being unseated in the next election. Langston was the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia.
He died in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 1897.
The town of Langston, Oklahoma, home of Langston University, is named after him.