John Mercer Langston. Courtesy of LIbrary of Congress.
John Mercer Langston. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When Rep. Don McEachin passed away last week, the Richmond Democrat was remembered in many ways.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, called him “a gentle giant, a compassionate champion for underdogs, a climate warrior, a Christian example, an understanding dad, a proud husband, a loyal brother.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, called him “an honorable and passionate statesman and colleague.”

Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, criticized him for being a supporter of abortion rights.

One description that I read, though, stuck with me more than others. It was the mention in the Richmond Times-Dispatch of how McEachin was the state’s third Black congressman. The second is still very much with us – Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News. The state’s first Black congressman requires a trip back in time: John Mercer Langston was elected in 1888.

This is more than some obscure historical fact; this is a window into a part of our past that most of us don’t know very well but perhaps should. We might be vaguely aware that the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War saw many former slaves elevated to public office, to the dismay of much of the white population. What is less well understood is that this brief experiment with multiracial government continued well after Reconstruction formally ended. In Virginia’s case, the Old Dominion was readmitted to the Union in 1870 – yet nearly two decades later the state was electing a Black congressman.

Langston did not exist in a vacuum. Encyclopedia Virginia lists 84 Black legislators who served in the House of Delegates in the two-decade span between 1869 (the year Virginia fulfilled the requirements for readmission) and 1890. It lists 14 Black members of the state Senate during that time, as well. Not all of them served at the same time, of course, but it’s clear there was substantial Black representation in the General Assembly long after Reconstruction. All but one of these Black legislators were Republicans (or Readjusters, a Virginia-only party that was essentially the Republican Party by a different name). And almost all were from Southside, from as far west as Buckingham County and as far east as Princess Anne County, the forerunner of today’s Virginia Beach. A few hailed from north of the James, as far north as Essex County and as far east as Northampton County over on the Eastern Shore. During that time, Mecklenburg County elected no fewer than five Black legislators to the House of Delegates and two to the state Senate. Halifax County elected six different Black members of the House of Delegates. Today there’s not a single Black legislator from rural Virginia.

There’s a reason Black representation ended after 1890. In 1885, Virginia had a landmark election. Voters reacted badly to the Readjuster administration of Gov. William Cameron that had, among other things, abolished the poll tax and the whipping post (all of which fell most harshly on Black Virginians), founded a state college and mental hospital to serve Black Virginians (the future Virginia State University and future Central State), and appointed an unprecedented number of Black citizens to state offices. To be fair, the Readjusters were also known for abusing their patronage powers but they were most famously known as a multi-racial party. In the 1883 midterms, voters tossed out the Readjuster majorities in both House and Senate in favor of conservative Democrats. In the 1885 election, Virginians elected a conservative Democrat – FitzHugh Lee – as governor with even bigger Democratic majorities in the General Assembly. What followed was a rollback of the civil rights progress that had been made, a rollback that ultimately led to the state’s infamous 1902 constitution that more formally disenfranchised virtually all the state’s Black voters.

In the state history books that were used when I was growing up, we weren’t taught any of this. On the contrary, we were taught that the 1902 constitution was a good thing that served “to correct certain undesirable parts” of the previous document. Curiously, those history books didn’t spell out exactly what those “certain undesirable parts” were. In effect, students of my generation were taught propaganda and lies. What we definitely weren’t taught is that for a time after the Civil War – and after Reconstruction – Virginia was on a different path. Virginia was working, however imperfectly, to create a multiracial government that reflected its population. Then, after the elections of 1883 and 1885, all that changed – and within a few years, there were no more Black legislators. The arc of the moral universe may indeed bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, but it doesn’t always bend in a straight line. As Virginians, we could all stand to learn more about this period of relative openness in the 1870s and 1880s before the state began to impose a form of Southern apartheid. Virginians of that era had a choice – and they made the wrong one.

It is against that backdrop that Langston emerged. His life and career tell us much about that era. (Langston, by the way, was never mentioned in my school textbook; so much for teaching us the full history of the state.) He was born in 1829 in Louisa County – and he was born free. His father was a white planter, his mother Black and enslaved. Encyclopedia Virginia says that Ralph Quarles, the planter, gave Lucy Langston her freedom after she’d given birth to a daughter, and then proceeded to father three more children with her. John Mercer Langston was one of those. Based on Langston’s own writings, Encyclopedia Virginia says “the former enslaved woman and her former owner had a genuine love for each other but could not legally marry in Virginia.”

We don’t learn much about the Black Virginians who lived free before the Civil War. The 1830 census, taken a year after Langston was born, recorded more free Blacks in Virginia than any other state except Maryland – 47,348. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were 58,042 free Black Virginians, still second only to Maryland. By contrast, Virginia then enslaved 490,887 people. Still, this is a population that gets little attention from history. The county with the biggest population of free Blacks was Dinwiddie County – 3,746 free Blacks in a county with 12,774 slaves. Demographically, the most interesting place that year may have been Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. Its Black population was a more even split: 3,418 free and 4,507 enslaved. What was that like?

Both of Langston’s parents died when he was four and Langston later wrote that they were buried side by side. The young Langston was placed in the care of a Quaker friend who took him to Ohio. Quarles had set aside funds for his sons’ education (no mention of his daughter), which enabled Langston to attend Oberlin College, earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in theology at a time when it was unusual for anyone, Black or white, to attend college. Langston is said to be the first Black American to apply to a law school. He was denied admission, so he read for the law, as was the custom then. In 1854, Langston became Ohio’s first Black lawyer. In 1855, he was elected clerk of the township of Brownhelm, another remarkable first. “He quickly became a major figure in the abolitionist movement and in the state’s nascent Republican Party,” Encyclopedia Virginia tells us.

During the Civil War, Langston recruited Black soldiers. After the war, he wound up in Virginia, working for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. By 1868, he was a law professor at Howard University; by 1869, a department head; by 1870, the school’s vice president; and from 1873 to 1875, Howard’s acting president. That’s a pretty impressive resume. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes named Langston ambassador to Haiti, a post he held through multiple administrations until he resigned in 1885 to become the first president of that Black college the Readjusters had established in Ettrick – the present-day Virginia State. That was also the year voters turned out the Readjusters and installed FitzHugh Lee as governor. Lee’s appointees to Virginia State’s governing board didn’t much like Langston and by 1887 he was out.

That was politics but the politics were just beginning. The next year Langston attended a Republican meeting in Farmville. That was then in the 4th Congressional District, which stretched east to Sussex County and south to the North Carolina line. It also had a Black majority. Black delegates – and in those days Black voters were almost exclusively Republican – urged Langston to seek the party’s nomination for Congress. State party leader William Mahone was opposed and backed a white Republican, Richard Arnold. “Even though Mahone had been the principal organizer of a biracial coalition of Republicans and Readjusters …  he balked at allowing African Americans to rise high in the party’s ranks,” Encyclopedia Virginia says. Arnold won the Republican nomination; Langston ran as an “independent Republican.” What followed was a three-way campaign against Democrat Ed Venable – and a controversy.

Langston found himself in philosophical opposition to the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Langston was in favor of Black Southerners moving to the North or West, which had less restrictive social climates; Douglass thought it was best that they stay put in the South. Douglass issued a statement opposing Langston’s candidacy. “His public letter provoked outrage from the local black community in Virginia and increased Langston’s popular appeal in the Fourth District,” Encyclopedia Virginia says.

The year 1888 was a Republican year nationally – sort of. Benjamin Harrison ousted President Grover Cleveland (although Cleveland won the popular vote). Republicans won the House of Representatives; the Senate, in those days, wasn’t popularly elected. The results in the 4th District were disputed. Encyclopedia Virginia says Venable took 13,298 votes to Langston’s 12,657, with only 3,207 for Arnold. The State Board of Elections says it was Langston 12,987, Venable 12,256, Arnold 3,207. I can’t explain the discrepancy although perhaps the state site reflects the final disposition. Venable was seated but Langston challenged the results – alleging fraud and voter intimidation – and pursued that challenge to the House floor. More than a year and a half went by. In September 1890, nearly two years after the election, House Republicans voted to unseat Venable and award Langston the seat. Democrats did not take this well. “During the preliminaries to the vote, Virginia Congressman Charles T. O’Ferrall, hoping to prevent action by the absence of a quorum, persuaded the other Democrats to refuse to answer when the clerk called the roll. The Speaker of the House of Representatives finally ordered the clerk to record the silent Democrats as present and declared Langston elected,” Encyclopedia Virginia says. If all that had been today, you can imagine how Twitter and cable news would be reacting.

The result is that Langston served in Congress but didn’t serve there long. Still, he served. He made two proposals: for a national literacy test to vote in federal elections (he felt this would raise literacy rates among both Blacks and whites) and to establish a national industrial university for Black Americans. Both measures failed. He spoke twice on the House floor, with his most important speech being in support of an early (and eventually unsuccessful) voting rights bill. “The question,” Langston asked, “is, shall every freeman, shall every American citizen, shall every American elector in the North and in the South, everywhere in the country, be permitted to wield a free ballot in the interests of our common country and our free institutions?” The answer, of course, was “no.”

Langston ran for reelection in 1890 “in another campaign that probably featured fraud and intimidation of voters,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia. The results this time were more clear-cut. Langston lost, with 42.9% of the vote, to Democrat James Epes. Republicans nominated him again in 1892; he declined. By then, Langston had moved on, literally – back to Washington, D.C. He practiced law and wrote his autobiography, “From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol.” By then, the doors to racial progress had closed in Virginia and were closing throughout the South as new, more restrictive voting laws were passed. For a time in the 1870s and 1880s, eight Southern states elected Black congressmen. Then they didn’t. The last Black congressman from the South in the 19th century was George Henry White of North Carolina, elected in 1896 and reelected in 1898. There would be no more Black members of Congress for 28 years, and none from the South for the next 72. If the Langston name sounds familiar, it’s likely because of the congressman’s great-nephew, the famed writer Langston Hughes.

White Virginians may not know much about Langston but he was a famous man in his day – and a famous man among Black Americans for the years that followed. A town in Oklahoma was named for him. Black schools were named after him, including one in Danville. So was a golf course in Washington, D.C. Langston’s home in Oberlin, Ohio, is now a National Historic Landmark. In 2021, Arlington County renamed its portion of U.S. 29 to Langston Highway.

Virginia is making up for lost time in recognizing its full history. We now have state office buildings named for civil rights pioneers Barbara Johns (from Farmville) and Oliver Hill (who grew up in Roanoke and originally practiced law there). The untimely passing of Virginia’s third Black House member raises this question: How should the state memorialize its first?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.