Revealed during the recent Blink extravaganza, a new mural decorates a wall on Logan Street near Findlay Market. This remarkable portrait of a distinguished, gentleman was chipped from the façade by a Portuguese artist who goes by the pseudonym “Vhils.”
Since the mural is not labeled, Cincinnatians may wonder who is portrayed. His name is John Mercer Langston and, although he lived in the Queen City for only a couple of years, he is someone we should be proud to claim.
John Mercer Langston was born in Virginia in 1829. Although he was African American and Virginia was a slave state, Langston was born free. His mother was Lucy Jane Langston, of African American and American Indian ancestry. His father was Ralph Quarles, the white plantation owner who once owned Lucy and fathered four children with her. By the time Langston was four, both of his parents were dead. Langston moved to Chillicothe, Ohio with his guardian, a Quaker farmer named William Gooch.
When he was 10 years old, Langston was sent to Cincinnati, where his oldest brother owned a barbershop and a livery stable, so he might attend school. Even in a free state such as Ohio, African American children were barred from public education. The only schools available to black youth were private programs, generally sponsored by liberal churches. In Cincinnati, Langston attended the school operated by two white ministers at the Baker Street Baptist Church. According to Langston’s autobiography, Cincinnati’s black community achieved a level of sophistication unknown in other cities:
If there has ever existed in any colored community of the United States, anything like an aristocratic class of such persons, it was found in Cincinnati at the time to which reference is here made. Besides finding there then a large class of such persons, composed in greater part of good looking, well-dressed and well-behaved young people of considerable accomplishment, one could count many families possessing a reasonable amount of means, who bore themselves seemingly in consciousness of their personal dignity and social worth.
This attainment brought forth an ugly resentment among the city’s white population, and it was during his brief stay in Cincinnati that Langston witnessed one of the darkest episodes in the city’s history—the Riot of 1841. The “riot” was actually a concerted attack in which a mob of white men attacked the local African American community. Dozens of people were killed in the armed conflict, much of the neighborhood known as “Little Africa” was destroyed, and many citizens of color fled from Cincinnati. As Langston remembered it:
Such fear proved to be well grounded; for about nine o’clock, a large ruffianly company, coming over from the adjacent towns of Kentucky, called together a large number of the baser sort of the people of Cincinnati, and opened, without the least delay, an outrageous, barbarous and deadly attack upon the entire class of the colored people. They were assaulted wherever found upon the streets, and with such weapons and violence as to cause death in many cases, no respect being had to the character, position, or innocence of those attacked. The only circumstance that seemed necessary to provoke assault, resulting even in death, was the color of the person thus treated.
Many of Cincinnati’s black residents fled the city, some as far as Canada. Langston settled in Lorain County on the shore of Lake Erie, where he attended Oberlin College and earned a master’s degree in theology. Despite this achievement, he was denied entry to any law school and studied law privately with a willing attorney. Langston was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1854, becoming the first African American lawyer in Ohio. While he practiced law, Langston aided fugitive slaves as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. He held leadership positions in several Abolitionist societies.
Langston claimed a new first in 1855 when he was elected township clerk, becoming the first African American elected to any office in the United States. During the Civil War, he recruited troops for black regiments in Ohio and Massachusetts. After the war, he worked in the Freedmen’s Bureau, assisting former slaves. With the election of President Ulysses S. Grant, Langston created a national sensation by daring to suggest that an African American deserved a seat on Grant’s Cabinet. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [November 8, 1872]:
He declares a cabinet position is due the colored race for the share they have had in electing General Grant, and he selects the post of Attorney-General, as he stated to-day, because it is in the line of his profession, and best suited to his tastes.
While a Cabinet post eluded him, Howard University selected Langston as the first dean of its new law school. While living in Washington, DC, Langston championed civil rights legislation, was appointed to the Board of Health, became the first African American to practice before the Supreme Court, and was named Ambassador to Haiti by President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Langston was named president of the college now known as Virginia State University and ran for Congress. He lost, but challenged the results on the basis of fraud and voter intimidation. His plea was upheld, and he gained his seat a year after the election, the first African American to represent Virginia.
Langston died in 1897. A town and a university in Oklahoma and an elementary school in Washington, DC, were named in his honor. His grand-nephew, the poet Langston Hughes, carried on his surname.