John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), who organized Howard University's law department (later the Law School), was a renowned lawyer, diplomat, educator, and politician.
Langston was born free in Louisa County, Virginia, where his father was a white planter and slaveholder and his mother was an emancipated slave. When both parents died in 1834, Langston received a large inheritance and became financially independent. He was raised by family friends in Ohio. In 1849 he received a B.A., and later an M.A. in theology, from Oberlin College. He soon became involved in abolition and black rights activities. Unable to enroll in law school because of his race, Langston studied independently and passed the Ohio Bar in 1854. He assisted freedom seekers on their journeys North and organized antislavery societies. He became involved in local government in Oberlin, Ohio, where he practiced law. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Langston recruited three African American regiments and applied for a military commission, but the war ended before he could lead a company of African American soldiers.
After the war Langston campaigned for black suffrage, which was granted by Congress in 1867. He was selected as an inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau (1868-1869), traveling throughout the South to ensure that the rights of new freedmen were respected.
At the same time Langston came to Howard University to organize its Law School, emphasizing racial and gender diversity. He was Law School dean from 1870 through 1873, then vice president and acting president of the university until 1875. He left Howard after he failed to be selected as university president.
Langston went on to serve as U.S. consul-general to Haiti, and in 1885 became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. In 1888 he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won, but his victory was contested for 18 months, leaving him a term of only six months to serve (1890-1891) as the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia. In the next election he was defeated.
Langston is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. In Washington, Langston Terrace Dwellings and Langston Golf Course are named in his honor, as are both Langston University and the town where it is located in Oklahoma.