175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston, Class of 1849, ranks as one of the most compelling figures in Oberlin’s 175-year history. A graduate of the College and an Oberlin resident for 15 years, he was a leader of conviction and influence, a visionary reformer, and an accomplished statesman and lawyer.

During the Underground Railroad era, Langston earned two Oberlin diplomas, an undergraduate degree in 1849, and a theology degree in 1852. Denied admission to law school because of his race, Langston studied privately with Judge Philemon Bliss in Elyria, and passed the bar in 1854. He was Ohio’s first black lawyer and is one of the first African-American public officials in the United States when selected as Brownhelm Township clerk.

In the late 1850s, he managed Oberlin's schools and later served as founding secretary of the Oberlin Board of Education. Today, Langston Middle School bears his name.

After leaving Oberlin, Langston organized Howard University’s Law Department in 1868, making its hallmark race and gender diversity. He went on to serve as U.S. consul-general in Haiti, and as the first African-American elected to Congress from Virginia.

Kevin Merida of The Washington Post, explored Langston’s life and roots in a story on June 7th , headlined “The Obama Before Obama.”

More information about John Mercer Langston can be found at the Oberlin College Archives’ web site.