A man of many firsts
“The Constitution does not provide for first and second class citizens.”
— Wendell Willkie
“There is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
— Justice John Marshall Harlan,
Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
Lucy Langston and Ralph Quarles loved one another. Their relationship had been going on for several years and Quarles intended to have Lucy move in with him and expand their family. But Lucy and Ralph could not let neighbors know about their relationship and they most certainly could not marry.
That’s because Quarles, the son of European immigrants, was a Virginia plantation owner and Langston, of mixed African American and Native American heritage, was not only his lover but also his legal property. After the birth of their first child, a daughter named Maria, Quarles freed both Langston and their child. Their relationship would last for decades and they would have three more children, all sons. Their last child, John, would be born in 1829 at the family farm in Lousia, Va.
John’s childhood would not be without tragedy, however. His parents both died when he was just four years of age. Though the family’s property was divided among the boys, none were old enough to take possession and John was moved to live with a family friend named William Gooch in Chillicothe. Five years later, Gooch packed up to move to Missouri and since, as a result of the Missouri Compromise, the Show Me State was a slave state, the ugly face of slavery once again made an appearance in John’s young life.
Fearful of what the move would mean for the 10-year-old child, his half brother sued in an Ohio court and John moved again, this time with the abolitionist who had purchased Gooch’s Chillicothe farm. Six years later, when his older brother Gideon had attained adulthood, John moved in with Gideon in Cincinnati just before the race riots and “Black Laws” of the following year.
The changing situation in Cincinnati would lead to John, now 14, moving back to Chillicothe with his half brother. There he was exposed to several older siblings and their friends who were all graduates of the recently founded Oberlin College. They inspired John to attend and he graduated in 1849, obtaining his masters in theology in 1853.
But theology was not to be John Mercer Langston’s calling. He wanted to become a lawyer. A difficult task in any age, it was nearly impossible for an African American before the Civil War. In 1853, there were only three licensed African American lawyers in the entire nation. Despite several attempts, no law school would accept Langston as a student. At that time, however, many lawyers did not attend law school and Langston went to Elyria to apprentice.
He learned quickly and by the following year was ready to practice law on his own. In order to do so, the local district court had to confirm that he had sufficient knowledge to practice law. Even in Ohio in 1854, Langston’s race was an issue. The court confirmed that he had sufficient knowledge but had to make a finding that he was, “nearer white than black” in order to admit him to the practice of law. In so doing, John Mercer Langston become the first African American lawyer in Ohio.
The following year the citizens of Brownhelm Township, Ohio (just south of Vermillion) elected Langston to be the township clerk making him one of the first African American office holders in the nation and the first in Ohio. After serving on the Oberlin board of education, the Oberlin city council and acting as a recruiter during the Civil War, Langston and his wife moved to Washington where he founded the law school at Howard University, served as the school’s Dean and was appointed by another Ohioan, President Grant, to the D.C. Board of Health. President Garfield later appointed him minister to Haiti.
In 1888, Langston took on his most daunting challenge, running for office in Virginia. His election to the U.S. House of Representatives was challenged in court for more than a year and just seven months remained in his term when he assumed his seat as the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia.
John Mercer Langston’s great-nephew Langston Hughes is certainly more widely known today, but the practicing bar in Ohio rightly remembers Langston for his firsts in the Buckeye State.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.