John Mercer Langston’s list of historic firsts is certainly noble, but accomplishment one stands above them all. On April 2, 1855, he was elected to public office in Ohio and, by some accounts, became the first African-American to do so. The attorney, abolitionist, educator, activist, and politician was also the first dean of Howard University’s law school.

Langston was born December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Va. He was born to a white slave owner father and a former slave mother. Langston received a huge inheritance after the death of his parents, giving him an opportunity to move to Ohio to study at Oberlin College. He earned an undergraduate degree along with a master’s degree in Theology from the school. Langston attempted to enter law school but was barred from doing so. He instead studied on his own and in 1854 he passed the bar exam, effectively making him the first Black lawyer in Ohio.

While in Ohio, Langston was elected as Brownhelm’s Town Clerk, marking him as the state’s first Black elected official, making him as the first or one of the first Black people to gain office in that fashion.

In 1868, Langston traveled to Washington, D.C.’s Howard University to head its law school program and helped establish strict educational standards as the institution’s acting president. Two years later, Langston became the first Black person elected to Congress although he served for just six months. Langston also served as the first president of what is now known as Virginia State University.

John Mercer Langston passed in 1897 at the age of 67.




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