History and Legacy of John M. Langston

The John M. Langston Bar Association has a long and impressive history. Founded in the 1920’s in Los Angeles, when attorney Crispus Attucks Wright and other pioneering lawyers began what was then a "law club."  The Association was originally known as the Blackstone Club and was founded in response to other bar associations’ policy of excluding African Americans as members.  The Blackstone Club became the Langston Law Club in 1943, but it was not until the mid-1960s that the Los Angeles County Bar Association recognized the Langston Law Club (and other minority bar groups) as dues-paying bar associations. 

 

Langston Law Club officially became the John M. Langston Bar Association in 1968. In 1990, the organization incorporated as a California nonprofit corporation named The John M. Langston Bar Association of Los Angeles, Inc.  The John M. Langston Bar Association of Los Angeles, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) publicly supported charity. 

 

Under the leadership of distinguished Presidents and active board members, the John M. Langston Bar Association has provided its members and the community with exceptional programs and events. Some of its activities include awarding scholarships to deserving law students at the installation and awards gala; providing free bar exam tutorials to assist law students in passing the bar examination; inducting accomplished legal practitioners and pioneers of our Bar into the Langston Hall of Fame; mentoring activities for law students and young lawyers; facilitating community law clinics; sponsoring continuing legal education programs for members; and hosting the Langston Law Institute where bar members and the community discuss solutions to legal issues affecting our community.

History of John Mercer Langston

One of the most prominent African Americans in the United States before and during the Civil War, John Mercer Langston was one of the first African Americans to hold elective office in the United States (he became Brownhelm, Ohio, township clerk in 1855), he helped establish Howard University’s school of law, and he topped off his long illustrious political career by becoming the first black man to represent Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Born the youngest of four children as a free black in Louisa County, Virginia on December 14, 1829, Langston gained distinction as an abolitionist, politician, and attorney.  Despite the prominence of his slaveowner father, Ralph Quarles, Langston took his surname from his mother, Lucy Langston, an emancipated slave of Indian and black ancestry.

At fourteen, Langston began his studies at the Preparatory Department at Oberlin College. Known for its radicalism and abolitionist politics, Oberlin was the first college in the United States to admit black and white students.  Langston completed his studies in 1849, becoming the fifth African American male to graduate from Oberlin’s Collegiate Department.  Langston received a B.A. in 1849 and an M.A. in theology in 1852 from Oberlin. Langston wanted to become a lawyer because it was a profession only three black men in the nation had officially achieved nationwide in the early 1850s.

In 1854, Langston married Caroline Matilda Wall, who also attended Oberlin College.  From North Carolina, she was the daughter of an enslaved mother and Colonel Stephen Wall, a wealthy white planter who freed his mixed-race daughters Sara and Caroline, and sent them to Ohio to be raised in an affluent Quaker household and educated.  An intellectual partner of Langston, Caroline had five children with him, one of whom died in childhood.

In 1855, Langston was elected town clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio, becoming the first black elected official in the state.  In addition to his law practice and activities as town clerk, Langston and his brothers, Gideon and Charles, participated in the Underground Railroad.  John Mercer Langston caught the attention of Frederick Douglass, who encouraged him to deliver antislavery speeches.

During the Civil War, Langston recruited black volunteers for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, officially the country’s first African American military unit.   In 1867, Langston served as Inspector General of the Freedmen's Bureau, touring the postwar South and encouraging freedmen to seek educational opportunities. He regularly spoke out against segregated facilities, including churches.  For the first two decades of the postwar era, Langston held prominent political and educational appointments.

In 1868, Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to help establish the nation’s first black law school at Howard University.  He became its first dean and served briefly as acting president of Howard in 1872.  President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Langston as a member of the Board of Health of the District of Columbia, and he was elected its Secretary in 1875.   In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston U.S. Minister to Haiti.  He returned to the U.S. in 1885 and became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University).

In 1888, Langston ran for a seat in Congress as an Independent against a white Democratic opponent.  The election results were contested for 18 months.  Langston was finally declared the winner and served the six remaining months of his term.  Langston lost his reelection bid in 1890.  Partly because of his prominence, the Oklahoma Territory town of Langston, and the college created in the town, Langston University, were named after him.  After a lifetime of “firsts” and numerous accomplishments, Langston died in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 1897 at the age of 67.

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