During an era where there were no Black lawyers in the nation, imagine bing a black defendant. We’ve all seen or at least heard of the American classic, To Kill a Mocking Bird, where Atticus Finch heroically stands up for the rights of an unjustly accused Black man against an angry town in to a white judge and a white dominated courtroom against a white prosecutor. Before there were Black lawyers there were nice white men who saw the truth and fought to preserve it (and there still are), but there’s something valuable in having someone who looks like you have the knowledge, education and accreditation to defend you.
That’s the power of black legal representation.
John Mercer Langston was born December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia, less than a decade after the passing of the Missouri Compromise. The value of Black life had been plainly set at 3/5ths human and the thought of a Black man representing someone as a lawyer was unheard of. Langston was the fourth born of his white slave master father. His mother was an emancipated slave, both his parents died when he was a child. He used his large inheritance to move to Cincinnati and focus on civil rights for African Americans. He became passionate about establishing civil rights for Blacks while attending Oberlin, getting his masters in theology. Although Langston was not accepted into law school he was so determined to become a lawyer that he studied privately until successfully passing his bar exam in 1854 becoming first African American lawyer, accredited in the state of Ohio.
That year he was elected town clerk where he’d also established his law firm in Brownhelm, Ohio. His election as town clerk also made him the first African American to hold office in the country. This was during the time of The Compromise of 1850 in response to the Texas boundary dispute, it was a set of bills that addressed slavery stating that the practice of slavery would be decided by popular sovereignty in new states This resulted in a stricter fugitive slave act, with the governments half stance on slavery many freed blacks were captured, relocated and taken as slaves. Some being educated others with families and children, the accomplishments of their lives were completely disregarded in the interest of slave traders looking for money. The dangerously vulnerable Black community was in need of representation in the government and the courts. There is somewhat of a win in the government’s response to slavery by limiting the slave trade, many slavery disapproving quakers and ministers seemed to think so, but there’s an offensive slight in this perceived ‘win’. The wavering stance did nothing to actually support Blacks in America.
It was the persistent diligence of Black professionals like John Mercer Langston who filled the gap that American policymakers refused to fill. Early in his career Langston helped runaway slaves along Ohio’s underground railroad. After which when the civil war began he assisted in recruiting Blacks into Union forces compiling the Massachusetts 54th, the first Black regiment in the nation. After the Civil War’s end, Langston passionately committed himself to suffrage and became the leader of the National Equal Rights League in 1864 and in 1870 black men received their right to vote. In addition to being a lawyer, activist and politician Langston was also a community leader. He became heavily involved in establishing Howard University’s law department in 1868 and served as president. He was later removed from the university’s presidential position in 1875 due to his race, prior to Langston all of the HBCU’s presidents had been white and it wasn’t until 1960 that another Black man was named president of the university, son of former slaves James Nabrit. Although Langston was not rewarded with the position of president at Howard after building their law department, he was awarded with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first African American to win a congressional election in Virginia. His election divided the house across racial and party lines, even Douglass opposed his election for fear of the losing the support of the Republican party. Langston successfully served until March of 1891. John Mercer Langston was a legal pioneer, he never allowed lack of an example to keep him for striving for more for himself and his people.