John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston (December 14, 1829 – November 15, 1897) apparently never lived in Danville, but for over seventy years a public school in the City has borne his name.

He was born in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of Ralph Quarles, a wealthy white plantation owner, and one of his female slaves of mixed native-American and black heritage, Lucy Langston, whom Quarles had emancipated. He was the youngest of four children and was given his mother’s surname. Although white slave owners had children with female slaves during times when slavery existed, the parentage was usually not well documented and often denied.

Apparently John M. Langston was an exception. When both of his parents died in 1834 of brief, unrelated illnesses, he received a sizeable inheritance which ensured his financial independence. He and his brothers, Charles and Gideon, went to live with William Gooch, a friend of Ralph Quarles, who lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, in a free state. In 1838, Gooch moved his family to Missouri, a slave state, and a court ruled that Langston’s inheritance would be threatened if he accompanied them, so John stayed behind and moved to Cincinnati, where he became enamored with the tight-knit community of freedmen which persisted there in the face of relentless bigotry.

Langston enrolled in the preparatory Department of Oberlin College at age 14 where he excelled in debate. He graduated from the Collegiate Department in 1849, the fifth black man to do so. In 1848 at the invitation of Frederick Douglass, he delivered an impromptu speech to the National Black Convention in Cleveland, condemning those who refused to help fugitive slaves. He received a Masters Degree from the Theology Department of Oberlin College in 1852 and, denied entry into law school because of his race, he read law under Philemon Bliss of Elyria, Ohio. Admitted to the Bar in 1854, he was the first black lawyer in Ohio to do so. He also became the first black lawyer to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. With the aid of his brothers, Gideon and Charles, he organized antislavery societies at both the state and local level and helped runaway slaves to escape along the Ohio section of the Underground Railroad. In his public addresses, he included appeals for women’s rights and temperance as well as freedom for slaves.

Langston married Caroline Wall, a senior in the literary department of Oberlin, settled in Brownhelm, Ohio, and established a law practice there and won election as Town Clerk. He moved to Oberlin in 1856 where he served as a city councilman from 1865 to 1867 and on the Board of Education from 1867 to 1858 and was a strong supporter for Republican candidates for local and national office. During the Civil War, he organized black volunteers for the Union Army and, as chief recruiter in the West, he assembled the Massachusetts 54th, the nation’s first black regiment, as well as the Massachusetts 55th and the Ohio 5th. Later in the War, he sought a military commission, but the War ended before it could be granted.

After the War, Langston was appointed Educational Inspector for the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands (Freedman’s Bureau) in 1868 and traveled throughout the South advocating educational opportunity, political equality and economic justice coupled with individual responsibility. His addresses were well received by blacks and whites alike and propelled him to national prominence. In 1868 he organized the Law Department at Howard University in Washington. Later, he served as Acting President of Howard but was denied the Presidency and forced out of his position in 1875 by the Board of Trustees because of his political views, causing the entire Law Department at Howard to resign in protest. In 1871 he was appointed and commissioned by President Grant as a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia. Appointed by President Hayes, he served for eight years as consul-general in Haiti and Charge’ d ’Affaires to Santo Domingo but returned to the States after a contract dispute and assumed the presidency of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now Virginia State University, in Petersburg, Virginia.

In 1888 Langston decided to make a bid for Congress as a Republican from the Fourth or Black Belt district of Southside Virginia. He was strongly opposed by William Mahone, the fading leader of the Mahone Machine which had been so prominent in Virginia politics since the Civil War and which was in the background of the so-called Danville Riot in 1883. Mahone put up Judge Robert S. Arnold as the official Republican candidate and the Democrats, who were becoming the dominant party in Virginia after many years of Republican rule, named Edward C. Venable. When the votes were counted, Venable had 13,310, Langston 12,657 and Arnold 3207. Langston contested the count and after a long-drawn-out battle for eighteen months before a congressional committee and the House itself, he was declared the winner, although by that time he had only six months of the term to serve. He ran for reelection in 1890 and was defeated.

Langston spent the rest of his life in Washington where he practiced law until his retirement in 1894 and wrote his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital.

In 1936 a new black high school was constructed in Danville on Gay Street near Holbrook Street and given the name, John M. Langston High School. In 1958 the school was relocated to a new building at 228 Cleveland Street, and when the black high school was merged with the white George Washington High School in 1970, it became a junior high school and later found other uses, but still retaining the John M. Langston name. Today it is known as the John M. Langston Focus Center (GPS coordinates: N 36 degrees 35.300, W 079 degrees 24.398’, Elevation 487’).

Why was the new black high school constructed in 1936 given the name John M. Langston High School almost thirty years after his death? Perhaps as an example to black youth, and later to all youth, of what, regardless of circumstances of birth, determination and education can do toward achieving a successful life.

John M. Langston Focus Center

228 Cleveland Street - Kohn M. Langston Focus Center image
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