John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston was not born in Brownhelm but became a leading character in the history of Brownhelm. An Ohio historical marker in front of the Historic Brownhelm School & Museum marks his achievement on Brownhelm

He was born in Louisa County, Virginia on Dec. 14, 1829, to Ralph Quarles, a plantation owner, and Jane Langston, a slave whom Quarles later freed. When he was 4, both his parents died and he moved first to Chillicothe, Ohio, then to Oberlin. He attended Oberlin College and earned bachelor’s, master’s and theology degrees. He completed his studies in 1849, becoming the fifth African American male to graduate from Oberlin College.

Move to Brownhelm

In 1854 Langston was 24 years old. He had been under a great deal of stress and his health was suffering. His doctor suggested that he have two years of fresh air and physical activity once he had completed his legal studies. Langston entered into a purchase for a lush 50 acre farm in Brownhelm (Middle Ridge and Baumhart area).  In January of 1854 he rented the farm to an English family, Thomas Slater, his wife and son. In late March of 1854, six months before his bar exam, Langston made the final payment on the $3000 purchase. The family had an agreement to live in the farmhouse and provide Langston room and board. They would work the land and split the profits. That Langston chose to live in the same house as a white family showed his commitment to equality. In September of the same year, a committee on the district court confirmed his knowledge of the law, deeming him "nearer white than black," and admitted him to the Ohio bar. He commenced his practice in Brownhelm, Ohio. In mid-September, the newly accredited attorney moved to the Brownhelm farm. There he found the former New Englanders in Brownhelm to be “puritan in thought, purpose, education and character. They tended not only some of the most fertile farming areas in the Western Reserve but also showed vigorous anti-slavery sentiments ‘to a really truthful degree’.”

The 1,200 strong citizenry of Brownhelm had not had its “abolitionism” tried. No Negro had ever before lived in Brownhelm. Langston’s ambitions personally and professionally for a fully realized black life in America would be tested in the all white abolitionist community of Brownhelm. Langston was faced with one man that did not share the idea of abolition and Negroes in the community. The original owner of Langston’s property had warned him before the purchase that the only man in the immediate vicinity likely to stir up trouble was Colonel Frank Peck (Elisha Franklin Peck) who owned the adjoining farm, and regularly used the lane to cut through what would be Langston’s farm. Peck’s own brother paid a call to deliver the same caution. Col. Peck had derived the title from service in the volunteer frontiersman cornstalk militia and had an unconquerable hated of abolitionism and the Negro.

Encounter with Col. Elisha Peck

As Langston worked in the potato field shortly after his move to the farm he spotted Peck riding stiffly through the lane on his way to the post office and on Peck’s return ride home, Langston addressed him.

“Good morning Colonel Peck!” Peck ignored Langston. So emphatically Langston repeated “Good morning Colonel Peck!”

In a gruff savage growl Peck demanded “And who are you?!”

Langston: “I am John Mercer Langston, a farmer, a lawyer, and your neighbor.”

Col. Peck: “I have no need of abolitionists nor anyone from that negro-loving school of Oberlin! I want nothing to do with any Oberlin-educated colored man!”

Unfazed Langston brazenly replied, “Colonel Peck, may I suggest it would benefit your family if you would send your children there to be educated and to be advanced morally and enlightened politically.”  Colonel Peck rode away.

From this unlikely meeting and improbable friendship began. His wife Carrie Langston also established a friendship with Mrs. Peck and her children. Even after the Langston family’s return to Oberlin in 1856, they continued to visit the Pecks.

Langston, through his character, moral life, and ability had impressed his Brownhelm neighbors. That was to be seen in the spring of 1855.

The Election

Late in March 1855 the independent democrats held a caucus to nominate candidates for local offices. That evening, he set off on horseback for the school house where the meeting would be held. On the way he encountered a neighbor, Charles Fairchild, a member of the prestigious Grandison Fairchild family who was among the original settlers in Brownhelm. He was the brother to Oberlin professor James H Fairchild, future president of Oberlin College. Charles had strong antislavery beliefs. After they had ridden for some distance, Fairchild turned to Langston: “Langston, tonight I intend to nominate you for township clerk, a position that entails many legal duties.” “Charles, that is very honorable of you in view of your anti-slavery and abolitionist views, but I’m afraid my name would kill the ticket.” Fairchild replied: “I feel strongly about this and intend to do so.” Charles enumerated Langston’s obvious qualifications for the post. Without the least of opposition Langston was nominated. Langston gratefully recalled “Never once did he mention my race.”  The election was held on April 2, 1855. The election was run 60 votes ahead of his ticket.

John Mercer Langston would become one of the first Negros elected to public office by popular vote in the United States.

Notable Achievements

Langston became active in the abolitionist movement and helped runaway slaves escape by the Underground Railroad. In 1863 when the government approved the United States Colored Troops, Langston was appointed to recruit African Americans to fight for the Union Army. He enlisted hundreds of men for duty in the Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments, in addition to 800 for Ohio’s first black regiment. After the war, Langston was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen's Bureau, a Federal organization that assisted freed slaves. In 1868 Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to establish and serve as dean of Howard University's law school; it was the first black law school in the country. In 1877 President Rutherford Hayes appointed Langston as U.S. Minister to Haiti. After his diplomatic service, in 1885 Langston returned to the US and Virginia. He was appointed by the state legislature as the first president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, a historically black college. Langston spent the remainder of his life traveling between Petersburg and Washington and working on his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, which was published in 1894. Langston died at home in Washington, DC, on November 15, 1897.

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