Black History Month is an annual observance in February. The practice originated in the United States but has received official recognition from the governments of Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Black History Month is meant to remember the important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora.
Ohio has played a significant role in that Diaspora. Any number of individuals should and do receive recognition of their part in our State’s history. As a law firm in Ohio, we want to highlight one attorney in particular in honor of the observance.
John Mercer Langston was born in 1829 and died in 1897. He enjoyed a long career as a lawyer, public servant, representative, and diplomat. He was a fierce abolitionist and helped pave the way for African-Americans to receive higher education and participate in American politics in a way they never could before. Langston is an important figure in local black legal history. In celebration of Black History Month, The Richards Firm wants to acknowledge some of his achievements.
John Mercer Langston was the first African-American to pass the Ohio Bar¹
From an early age, John Mercer Langston was noted as being intelligent and possessing excellent oratory skills. Langston enrolled in a preparatory program at Oberlin College at the age of fourteen, and he later graduated from Oberlin in 1849. Langston was the fifth black man to graduate from Oberlin. He stayed at Oberlin to obtain a Master’s Degree in Theology. Langston had aspirations of attending law school, but was denied entry because of his race. He persevered, studying law privately under Philemon Bliss and passing the Ohio Bar in 1844. He became Ohio’s first black lawyer².
Langston was one of the first African-Americans to hold public office in the United States³
Langston established a legal practice in Brownhelm, Ohio, where he began to get involved in local politics. He ran for town clerk and won election in 1855, making him one of the first African-Americans to hold public office in the United States. He later moved back to Oberlin, where he served as a member of the Town Council from 1865-1867 and later as a member of the Oberlin School Board. During this time, he became heavily invested in the abolitionist movement, becoming a part of the Underground Railroad and assisting runaway slaves. When the Civil War broke out, he helped recruit soldiers for the Union war effort.
Langston was the first African-American member of Congress in Virginia⁴
In 1888, John Mercer Langston ran for Congress as a Republican representative for the state of Virginia. Langston ran without the support of the National Republican Executive Committee, choosing instead to run as an independent Republican. The race was originally called against Langston, but Langston challenged the race as unfair. The election was redecided in Langston’s favor in 1890, allowing him to serve seven months as a representative for Virginia, becoming the first African-American to do so in the state. During his time in office, Langston pushed for greater voting protections and educational opportunities for African-Americans.
The Richards Firm Honors Black History Month
At The Richards Firm, we acknowledge that John Mercer Langston is just one Ohioan who deserves recognition in this month. Our managing partner, Rhys Richards, obtained his minor in African Studies, which also explored the African Diaspora. He appreciates all efforts to learn about people like Langston in honor of this month.
¹Oberlin College. “John Mercer Langston (1829-1897).” John Mercer Langston, Oberlin College Archives, https://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/OYTT-images/JMLangston.html.
²[Congressional Record Volume 163, Number 27 (Wednesday, February 15, 2017)][House][Page H1224]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
³Ohio History Central. “John M. Langston.” John M. Langston – Ohio History Central, https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/John_M._Langston.
⁴Johnson, Joshua. “John Mercer Langston.” WHHA (En-US), 5 May 2022, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/john-mercer-langston.