Wednesday, July 08, 2009


by Cleo E. Brown

John Mercer Langston was an early African-American Republican of whom it has been said he was instrumental in steering The Republican Party towards an anti-slavery position. Although he, himself, was born free and had a Caucasian father, Langston manifested a life-long aversion to slavery and worked towards the eradication of injustice and inequality for African-American people throughout his life.

John Mercer Langston was the youngest child of a plantation owner named Ralph Quarles and Lucy Jane Langston whom Quarles had had a twenty-five year relationship with. Lucy Jane Langston, who had been Quarles slave/mistress, was emancipated by Quarles in 1806 after the birth of the couples’ daughter named Maria.

Lucy Langston was of mixed-race ancestry being both African and Native-American. In addition to their oldest child together (Maria) and their youngest child together (John), the Quarles-Langston union produced two other children who were named Gideon Quarles and Charles Henry Langston. The Quarles children also had an older half brother named William Langston. John was born on December 14th, 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia.

Both Ralph Quarles and Lucy Jane Langston died in 1834 months apart from each other after brief illnesses. John was not yet five years old. He and his brothers then moved to Chillicothe, Ohio with William where they were raised by their father’s best friend named William Gooch. Although they were of African-American descent and had migrated from the south, Gideon, Charles, and John were economically independent since they had inherited their father’s wealth. It is not likely that Maria inherited anything from her mother or her father since women in The Ante-Bellum South had no rights to money and to property.

John Mercer Langston remained in Ohio, which was a free state by 1834, for fifteen years. When he was fourteen years old, young John enrolled in Oberlin College. His older brothers, Gideon and Charles , had enrolled in Oberlin in 1835 “where they were the first African-American students to be admitted.” By 1849, John had earned a Bachelor’s Degree, and a Master’s Degree in Theology in 1852. Despite having earned two such prestigious degrees, John Langston wanted to attend a Law School where he could receive a law degree. Unfortunately, however, because of his race, he was denied entry to the law schools of his choice. One such law school had reasoned that Langston could attend the law school if he at in the back of the classroom saying nothing. Another advised John Langston to deny his true heritage and to pretend to be French or Spanish. John Mercer found these conditions to be unacceptable and so studied law privately under a Republican Congressman and Attorney named Philemon Bliss. Langston was admitted to the Ohio State Bar in 1854.

John Mercer Langston had begun to develop his sense of social injustice as a student in Cincinnati at Oberlin College. In 1838 William Gooch moved to the slave state of Missouri. John did not follow him because his inheritance would have been confiscated if he had done so. Consequently, he moved from Chillicothe, Ohio to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, he became involved with a community of freedmen who resisted bigotry. As a student at Oberlin College, john also excelled at debate. He involved himself in “The Black Rights Movement.” Frederick Douglass, therefore, became impressed with him asking John Langston to address The National Black Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. In his speech, John admonished Americans to help fugitive slaves. Being the fifth Black Man to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in 1849, he was also the first black in the state of Ohio to pass the Bar and to become an attorney.

In the meantime, John, Charles, and Gideon organized antislavery societies at the local and at the state levels. They also aided fugitive slaves along The Ohio Line of The Underground Railroad. John Langston also addressed the need for Women’s Rights. He did not, however, support The American Colonization Society whose aim was to send Blacks back to Africa.

In 1854, John married Caroline Matilda Wall who had also attended and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in Literature. She, also, had been the emancipated daughter of a slave mother and a wealthy, white Aristocratic (planter) father who had sent both of his daughters to the North to be educated. John’s wife Caroline, therefore, was his intellectual equal. They had five children together with only one of them dying in infancy. Shortly after the couple married, John Mercer Langston and Caroline Matilda Wall settled in Brown helm, Ohio where Langston established a law practice eventually becoming the first African-American elected to a public office in The United States.

John Langston also aided and abetted John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. He also organized black soldiers for the Union Army and, consequently, created The Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments as well as The Ohio 5th regiment. After the war ended, John Mercer Langston was instrumental in helping Black Men to secure for themselves the right to vote. From 1865 to 1867 he served as a city councilman. From 1867 to 1868 he served on the Board of Education. As the leader of The National Equal Rights League he carried out extensive suffrage campaigns for the vote for the black male. To this end, his dream was realized in 1867.

Langston also worked as an education inspector for The Freedman’s Bureau whose job it was to help the newly freed blacks to assimilate freedom. As an attorney, he represented an African-American Woman named Edmonia Lewis, who was accused of poisoning her white classmates. She was acquitted of this crime becoming a famous sculptress later in life. By 1868, John Langston had organized the law department at Howard University becoming its first department dean. He also served, for a period of time, as the acting President of The University. By 1888, after having served as consul-general to Haiti; and after having become The President of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1885, John Mercer Langston was once again catapulted into The National Spotlight when he won a seat in The United States House of Representatives. His victory was contested for eighteen months because he was the first African-American elected to Congress from Virginia. Eventually, however, he was able to take his seat.

After his retirement in 1894, Langston wrote his autobiography entitled: From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol. He died on November 15, 1897 at the age of sixty-seven years old. John Mercer Langston is also the great-uncle of The Harlem Renaissance Poet named Langston Hughes.

About the Author: Cleo E. Brown is also a Free Lance Writer and an Editor at HHR. Cleo is a moderate Republican who is the The Dean of Student Affairs in a GED Preparation Program in New York City. She holds a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis.

HHR Note: There is also a social networking group for young black Republicans & Libertarians called The John Langston Forum you can join that group here


Binns said...

Virginia Nornal and Collegiate Institute later became Virginia State University. I am a graduate of VSU. Thanks for the post!

chessnic said...

I find your history troubling. John Mercer Langston, Abraham Lincoln, and all the Reconstruction fighters for equality of the 1860s and 1870s have been spinning in their graves since the Republican party became the choice of the solid South.

For over one hundred years, starting in 1865, it was the Democrats that defended Jim Crow segregation and related "states' rights."

When the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced the South to honor the Constitution and the promises of the Declaration of Independence, every racist Dixiecrat turned Republican!

The current party of Dixie has nothing to do with J M Langston.

Swagger said...

I too find your history troubling because not all Dixiecrats became Republican. It is true that Dixiecrats adopted conservative ideals to fit there agenda, that howver does not mean conservatism is somehow a racist ideology. The fact show that most Dixiecrats remained Democrats they did not change there party.

Notable members

(D)VA Harry F. Byrd, 1933-1965
(D)VA A. Willis Robertson, 1946-1966
(D)MS John C. Stennis, 1947-1989
(D)MS James O. Eastland, 1941-1941, 1943-1978
(D)LA Allen J. Ellender, 1937-1972
(D)LA Russell B. Long, 1948-1987
(D)OK Thomas Pryor Gore, 1906-1921, 1931-1937
(D)AL J. Lister Hill, 1938-1969
(D)AL John J. Sparkman, 1946-1979
(D)FL Spessard Holland, 1946-1971
(D)FL George Smathers, 1951-1969
(D)SC Olin D. Johnston, 1945-1965
(D,R)SC Strom Thurmond, 1954-1956, 1956-2003
(D)AR John McClellan, 1943-1977
(D)GA Richard B. Russell, Jr., 1933-1971
(D)GA Herman E. Talmadge, 1957-1981
(D)TN Herbert S. Walters, 1963-1964
Senator Strom Thurmond switched parties and became a Republican as a result of his support for the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964. Jesse Helms also switched his party registration to Republican in 1970 and won a Senate seat in North Carolina in 1972. Several other Southern senators, such as Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia and James Eastland and John Stennis of Mississippi remained in the Democratic Party. They went on to become prominent senators who served multiple terms in the service of their respective states. These long careers in the Senate elevated their seniority and put them in positions of power and prestige.

Into the late 20th century, the South changed from a Democratic monolith to a majority Republican sector of the country with GOP gains in state legislatures. This change, which became quite evident in 1972 with the electoral success of Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy", peaked with the elections of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. It was consolidated in 1994 when Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives under the leadership of Newt Gingrich.

First because the GOP started out as a coalition party you may be right Lincoln would have been suprised that the coservative branch dominates the party's platform.

chessnic said...

Republicans abandoned the African American constituency in 1874. It was not until FDR, however, that black voters turned their pictures of Lincoln to the wall and deserted the GOP. I feel certain that Langston, had he lived, would have led them away from the Republican Party even sooner.

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