In 1829, the youngest of four children, John Mercer Langston, was born a free black in Louisa County, Virginia. Langston rose to prominence as an abolitionist, politician, and lawyer. Langston took his surname from his mother, Lucy Langston, an emancipated slave of Indian and black ancestry, despite the prominence of his slaveowner father, Ralph Quarles. When both parents died of unrelated illnesses in 1834, five-year-old Langston and his older siblings were transported to Missouri and taken in by Ralph Quarles’ friend, William Gooch.
Langston began his studies at Oberlin College’s Preparatory Department at the age of fourteen. Oberlin was the first college in the United States to admit black and white students, and it was known for its radicalism and abolitionist politics. Langston graduated from Oberlin’s Collegiate Department in 1849, making him the fifth African American male to do so. After being denied admission to law schools in New York and Ohio due to his race, John studied law (or “read law,” as it was called back then) under attorney and Republican US Congressman Philemon Bliss, and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1854.
Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall, a freed slave from North Carolina, in 1854. Her and Langston’s backgrounds were strikingly similar. Both were born into slavery and were freed by slaveowner fathers who supported them financially. They were able to obtain an education after being freed and sent north. When Wall was a young girl, her father, Colonel Stephen Wall, sent her and her sister, Sara, to Ohio. The sisters were raised in an affluent Quaker household under the guardianship of a wealthy family friend. Caroline Wall, like Langston, attended Oberlin and graduated in 1856.
In 1855 Langston was elected town clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio, becoming the first black elected official in the state. In addition to his law practice and activities as town clerk, Langston and his brothers, Gideon and Charles, participated in the Underground Railroad. John Mercer Langston caught the attention of Frederick Douglass, who encouraged him to deliver antislavery speeches. During the Civil War, Langston recruited black volunteers for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, officially the country’s first African American military unit.
In 1868 Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to help establish the nation’s first law school at Howard University. He became its first dean and served briefly as acting president of Howard in 1872. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston U.S. minister to Haiti. He returned to the U.S. in 1885 and became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University).
In 1888, John Mercer Langston ran as an Independent against a white Democratic opponent for a seat in Congress. For 18 months, the election results were contested. Langston was eventually declared the victor, and he served the remaining six months of his term. Langston was defeated in his reelection bid in 1890. Because of his fame, the Oklahoma Territory town of Langston and the college founded there, Langston University, were named after him. On November 15, 1897, John Mercer Langston died in Washington, D.C.