Introduction to John Mercer Langston & the John Mercer Langston Historic House

John Mercer Langston was an abolitionist and race man--a historical figure of both talk and action, larger than life in his time and too small in memory in our time. December 14th, 2015 marks the commemoration of an extraordinary presence of one who dedicated his life to the uplifting and betterment of his people. Born in 1829, John was born free to Lucy Langston, a freed woman of Indian and African descent and Ralph Quarles, a white revolutionary war hero from Virginia. Quarles freed Lucy and their children, but he also enslaved other Africans on his plantation.

John Mercer Langston was born into a world which his parents created in Luisa County, Virginia. It was a world of glaring contradictions and privilege. Following his parents’ deaths and a move with a guardian to the safer territory of Chillicothe, Ohio, Langston eventually joined up with his older brothers, Gideon and Charles. He and his brothers attended Oberlin College. When John graduated, he studied theology and law and went on to become the first recognized African-American lawyer from the state of Ohio. Together, John and his brothers helped to establish and build that state’s first Anti-Slavery Society.

John Mercer Langston grew up in an era of race riots, lynching, and unspeakable crimes against humanity inflicted on innocent men, women, and children. He became an active participant in the freeing, protection, and education of freedom -seeking and freedom -taking women and men of African descent. An orator on equal footing with Frederick Douglass, he practiced law, spoke out, and engaged in work to educate and better the lives of black folk in Ohio and beyond. While in Ohio, he lived in Brownhelm, Ohio, where despite the fact that he could not vote, he was elected Town Clerk, thus holding the distinction of becoming one of the first African-Americans elected to a public office in the United States.

Langston married Caroline Wall in October of 1854, and moved from Brownhelm to Oberlin in 1856. They moved into a house that his brother-in-law, O.S.B Wall helped to build along with other black men. The Langstons added three children to their family, two boys and a girl. While living at what eventually became known as 207 East College Street, Langston, his wife and their cohorts worked tirelessly on issues related to freedom and justice for black folk. Visitors to this house included other prominent abolitionists. While living, in this house, Langston served on both the Oberlin City Council and the Oberlin Board of Education. He also organized the first Black regiment for the Union Army during the Civil War, and was selected by the Black National Convention in 1864 to head the National Equal Rights League. His tireless work led to congressional approval of Black male suffrage in 1867.

So begins my blog and a series of guest writers’ reflections on John Mercer Langston’s life while he resided at 207 East College Street, Oberlin, OH. Langston’s body of work helped to shape and define calculated responses and advocacy focused on the quest for freedom and pursuit of justice for African Americans. I am indebted to the scholarship and writings of Dr. William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek , two authors who I think have written the definitive historical accounting of John Mercer Langston, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom 1829-65.

by Dr. Olivia H. Cousins
Owner & Steward

Upcoming blog: Past & Present Connections