John Mercer Langston - African American Trailblazers

Uploaded by LibraryofVa on 10.03.2009

Let me tell you a story about John Mercer Langston.
One day in 1890 in Washington, D.C.,
John was driving down the street aboard an elegant carriage.
Now this carriage was powered by magnificent white horses.
It was a sight to behold.
John made this trip with great pride every day on his way to the Congress.
Some folks in the white neighborhood decided they had enough of this "parade"
and set up a barrier right in the middle of a straight to keep the congressman from
coming through.
John Mercer Langston was undaunted.
The next day,
he brought himself an axe and chopped that barrier into toothpicks,
and then proceeded to represent me--
an American citizen--in the United States Congress.
John Mercer Langston's entire life
was devoted to breaking down barriers.
The most visible were the halls of the United States Congress.
Never before had the Commonwealth of Virginia elected an African-American to
Congress until he was declared the winner of the disputed election in
two years after the election took place. It is contested,
so much so that he spends not quite a year here in office,
once he finally does get into place in Washington, D.C.
So we even see that
even though he was awarded the
place or the seat,
he's not in for a full term. This distinction followed a powerful history
of fighting for the rights of African-Americans.
During the Civil War, Langston recruited some of the first black soldiers to
fight with the legendary 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments,
giving a clear advantage to the North.
He was instrumental in helping Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner
draft legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act
of 1875.
A few years later,
President Rutherford B. Hayes
made him an ambassador to two foreign countries.
The new black university called Howard thought enough of Langston that they asked
him to begin their storied law school.
Once there,
he created the foundation of an institution that spent the next fifty
years successfully breaking down the barriers of segregation.
Langston then returned to the land of his birth to take the helm at Virginia Normal
and Collegiate Institute in Petersburg.
Ever the pioneer, Langston attempted to institute changes to the curriculum
at the school by increasing the emphasis on liberal arts
as opposed to technical and occupational training.
His plans, however,
fit with what the Democrats who were in control of the state and local politics
thought negro education should be.
Ultimately, they
would force his resignation in 1887.
When I think about John Mercer Langston, I think about someone who had to be
supremely self-confident.
Someone who had to
know who he was--
as we can tell, we know he had an education.
I think just in terms of his own personal character, he had to have a very
clear vision
about the world in which he wanted to live and he was not willing to take no
for an answer, either for himself personally
or for the collective. At one point that collective being people who
had not yet been emancipated from slavery, at another point a group of people
who were clamoring for inclusion in this American democracy.
John Mercer Langston's entire life was devoted to breaking down all barriers for African-Americans.