Meet John Mercer Langston, The First Black Man To Become a Lawyer

Meet John Mercer Langston, black leader, educator, and the first Black lawyer.

Langston was the son of slave mother and was emancipated at the age of five, attended school in Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College in 1849. He quickly became a leader among free blacks and was elected to local offices in Brownhelm Township, Ohio (1855), and Oberlin (1865–67). In 1864 he helped organize the National Equal Rights League, of which he was the first president.

Together with his older brothers Gideon and Charles, John Langston became active in the abolitionist movement. He helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad. In 1858 he and Charles partnered in leading the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, with John acting as president and traveling to organize local units, and Charles managing as executive secretary in Cleveland.[1]

John Mercer Langston was the first black man to become a lawyer when he passed the bar in Ohio in 1854. When he was elected to the post of Town Clerk for Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855 Langston became one of the first African Americans ever elected to public office in America.

In 1864 Langston chaired the committee whose agenda was ratified by the black National Convention: they called for abolition of slavery, support of racial unity and self-help, and equality before the law.[1] To accomplish this program, the convention founded the National Equal Rights League and elected Langston president. He served until 1868.

In 1868 Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to establish and serve as the founding dean of Howard University’s law school; this was the first black law school in the country. Appointed acting president of the school in 1872, and vice president of the school, Langston worked to establish strong academic standards.

After the American Civil War Langston moved to Washington, D.C., practiced law, and was professor of law and dean of the law department (1869–77) and vice president (1872–76) of Howard University. He was U.S. minister to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to Santo Domingo (1877–85) and was elected president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (1885). In 1888 he was a Republican candidate from Virginia for the U.S. House of Representatives, and, after a challenge of the election returns that took almost two years, he succeeded in unseating his Democratic opponent and served in Congress from Sept. 23, 1890, to March 3, 1891.

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