By Lauren Farrell Gardiner
Contrary to popular belief, Arlington’s Langston Boulevard is not named for the poet Langston Hughes. Rather, the former Lee Highway is named for Langston Hughes’ great uncle John Mercer Langston, an abolitionist, lawyer, and the first Black man to represent Virginia in Congress.
John Mercer Langston was born in Louisa, Virginia in 1829 to Lucy Langston, a Native American and former enslaved woman. His father was Ralph Quarles, a celebrated Revolutionary soldier, wealthy landowner, and Lucy’s enslaver, with whom Lucy had four children. Quarles emancipated Lucy and their first child in 1806, then Lucy left him and had 3 children with another man. She later returned to Quarles, lived with him as his common law wife (since interracial marriage was illegal), and they had three more children together, the youngest of whom was John Langston.
Langston’s parents died in 1834, when he was only four years old. At the time, he moved to Ohio, where he was raised by family friends, and later, his older brothers. While living in Ohio, Langston was exposed to the strong anti-slavery rhetoric of the North. Langston graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and married fellow abolitionist Caroline Wall. Langston hoped to become a lawyer, but in the early 1850s, only three Black men nationwide had been admitted to law school. After two law school rejections, Langston studied under local abolitionists in Ohio and was only admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854 after a bar committee deemed him “nearer white than black.” He thus became the first Black lawyer in Ohio.
He and Caroline moved to Brownhelm, Ohio, where he won election to the post of Town Clerk. Some sources speculate that he was the first African American elected to public office in the United States. About a decade later, Langston served as Inspector General of the Freedmen’s Bureau, touring the postwar South, and encouraging freedmen to seek educational opportunities. In 1868, Langston went to Washington, DC, where he established the law department at Howard University and later served as dean of the University. He also served as Minister to Haiti.
In 1889, after moving back to Virginia, Langston became the first Black person in Virginia to serve in the US House of Representatives. He had run as a Republican and lost to his Democratic opponent but contested the results of the election because of voter intimidation and fraud. After 18 months, the Congressional elections committee declared Langston the winner, and he took his seat in the U.S. Congress for the remaining six months of the term. He lost his bid for reelection because conservative White Democrats had regained political control of Virginia. It would be over a century before Virginia sent another Black representative to Congress. Following his time in Congress, Langston exited the political arena and wrote his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol.