December 14, 1829 John Mercer Langston, attorney, abolitionist, and educator, was born in Louisa County, Virginia. Langston earned a bachelor’s degree in 1849 and a master’s degree in theology in 1852 from Oberlin College. Denied admission to law school because of his race, Langston studied under an established attorney and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854. Together with his brothers, Langston became active in the Abolitionist Movement and in 1858 became president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.
During the Civil War, Langston was appointed to recruit African Americans to fight for the Union Army and, after the war, he was appointed Inspector General for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal organization that assisted formerly enslaved blacks. From 1864 to 1868, Langston served as president of the National Equal Rights League, which called for the abolition of slavery, support of racial unity and self-help, and equality before the law. In 1868, Langston established and served as dean of Howard University Law School, the first black law school in the country. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Langston a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him United States Minister to Haiti and in 1884 he was appointed Charge d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. In 1885, Langston was named the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Virginia State University) and in 1888 he became the first black person elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia. In 1894, Langston published his autobiography, “From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol: Or the First and Only Negro Representative in Congress From the Old Dominion.” Langston died November 15, 1897.
There are a number of schools named in honor of Langston, including Langston University in Oklahoma. His biography, “John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829 – 65,” was published in 1989 and his house in Oberlin was designated a National Historic Landmark.
John Sweat Rock (1825-1866) was one of the first to coin the phrase “Black is Beautiful,” and he was one of the major forces in the formation of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments