John Mercer Langston: a snapshot biography

John Mercer Langston would would rise to become a pioneering force in American history, a man of many firsts in society. But before his accomplishments, he was born in Virginia in 1829.

John was born to a mixed-race couple. His father, a white plantation owner, enslaved people. His mother, a woman of African American and Native American ancestry, had been enslaved by John’s father. But keeping with a philosophy of educating and freeing those he enslaved, John’s father freed her in the early 1800s. Thus, John was born a free man.

Black and white photograph of John Mercer Langston, a 19th-century African American abolitionist and politician. He is depicted from the waist up, dressed in a formal three-piece suit with a bow tie. Langston has a full beard and mustache, and his hair is parted on the side. He has a stern expression and is looking slightly to the left of the camera, with his right hand tucked into his coat.
John Mercer Langston, circa 1870

While John only had a few years with his parents, as they both passed away when he was four years old, he spoke kindly of them and their relationship. They never married, as the laws forbade them from doing so. But they had four children together.

After their passing, John spent his youth living in different homes. He experienced much kindness and warmth, with many life lessons coming from the experience. In one home, before even his teen years, he learned the habits of hard work and discipline, which John described as an essential experience that prepared him for life challenges. In that home, the “idea of the highest style of boyhood was realized, when it could be said of one that he was a good worker,” John would say.

After attending Oberlin for college and growing into adulthood, John began thinking of a career. He decided to become a lawyer. But law schools wouldn’t accept him.

“Students would not feel at home with him, and he would not feel at home with them,” one told him.

Feedback from another was, “I will let you edge your way into my school.” To which John replied, “What, Mr. Fowler, do you mean by your words’ Edge your way into the school?’” The response: “Come into the recitation-room; take your seat off and apart from the class; ask no questions; behave yourself quietly; and if after a time no one says anything against, but all seem well inclined toward you, you may move up nearer the class; and so continue to do till you are taken and considered in due time as in full and regular membership.” John declined.

Instead, John began coursework in theology at Oberlin after taking advice from previous professors who told him that the studies would be good for his soul and help with legal training. Three years later, John graduated as the first black theological graduate in the U.S.

Black and white photograph of John Mercer Langston's house in Oberlin, Ohio. The two-story, Colonial-style house features a symmetrical facade with four evenly spaced windows on the second floor and two windows flanking a central door on the first floor. The house is clad in horizontal siding, and there is a small, covered porch at the entrance with supporting columns. A bare tree is visible to the right, and there is a manicured lawn with a walkway leading to the front door.
John Mercer Langston – his Oberlin home

Described in these years as “a rather slim, handsome and elegant young man,” John settled in Oberlin, where he became an important part of the community. He became an accomplished attorney, never afraid of taking on a challenge. In one case, he chose to defend Edmonia Lewis. Edmonia, a Black and Native American woman, who would become a famous sculptor, was accused of poisoning two friends during her college years at Oberlin. She was found not guilty with John’s defense.

Along with his attorney work, John actively participated in city politics. He became the town clerk and later a board of education member. These were the beginnings of political work that continued throughout his life. In later years, John was appointed minister to Haiti. And after, he was elected a congressman representing Virginia.

Black and white photograph of John Mercer Langston seated in a wooden chair. He is facing slightly to his right with his body turned towards the camera, giving a three-quarter view. Langston is wearing a dark, formal three-piece suit with a bow tie and a white shirt. He has a full beard and mustache, and his hair is neatly combed. His hands are clasped in his lap, and his expression is serious. The background is plain and shows some markings and damage, typical of aged photographs.
John Mercer Langston, circa 1868

When he was not working in politics, John also had a career in education. He was President of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. And later, he became a law professor at Howard University, Dean of the Law School, and vice president of the university.

John advocated for equal rights in all his work. He challenged norms, creating new opportunities. After a long career, John passed away in 1897.


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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another advocate for equal rights, Frederick Douglass.


  • Prof. John Langston, Howard University. [Between 1860 and 1875] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  • Prof. John Langston, Howard University. [Between 1868 and 1875] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>
  • Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. John Mercer Langston House, 207 East College Street, Oberlin, Lorain County, OH. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>
  • Bloomfield, Maxwell. “John Mercer Langston and the Rise of Howard Law School.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., vol. 71/72, 1971, pp. 421–38. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Jan. 2023.
  • Blodgett, Geoffrey. “John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 53, no. 3, 1968, pp. 201–18. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.

To Cite

John Mercer Langston.” Published by Historical Snapshots.