The only African American of the 19th century that was more prominent and
influential than John Mercer Langston was Frederick Douglass. John Mercer
Langston was the first Black American elected to public office in the United
States and was twice suggested as a candidate for vice-president of the
United States on the republican ticket. During his lifetime, Langston's
career would involve education, law and politics.
John Mercer Langston was born free in 1829 and was an orphan by his fifth birthday. As an orphan, Langston was raised in both black and white households. By the age of fourteen, Langston began study at Oberlin College where he obtained both a Bachelors and Master of Arts degree. By his eighteenth birthday he was a speaker at the first national black convention in 1848 on the subject of aid to fugitive slaves.
Langston was elected town clerk and allied himself with the Republican Party as was common among Blacks in the 19th century. He said that "if the republican party is not anti-slavery enough, take hold of it and make it so." Langston is given credit for shaping the character of the Republican party in the 19th century in terms of its then progressive relationship to African Americans. He was responsible for organizing black political clubs across the country. As a result of his political contacts Langston was chosen to lead the western recruitment of black soldiers to fight in the Civil War. He also actively worked for the fair and equal treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army. After the Civil War, Langston worked both independently and with the Republican Party for the redistribution of wealth and power in the country. Both before and after the Civil War along with many others, he struggled for black voting rights.
Langston spent six and a half years at Howard University where he served as a Law professor, Dean of the Law Department, vice-president and acting president. The white conservative trustee board of Howard University had problems with his progressive views and were troubled with Langston's desire to expand the Law Department. Langston knew that the life of the Blacks in this country could be changed if laws were changed. The trustees forced him out of Howard, but the entire Law Department resigned in protest of the actions of the board of trustees.
Langston was appointed to the diplomatic corps and served in Haiti for eight years. He left in protest when the new democratic administration reduced his salary by 30%. Langston ran for Congress in the state of Virginia and won. He fought an eighteen month battle to be seated in congress because of attempts to rig the polls on election day. After serving in Congress for only three months (because of the attempt to steal his seat) Langston spent the rest of his life in Washington where he continued to fight for justice for African Americans.