APRIL 2, 1855

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston became the first Black public official in the U.S., serving as a town clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio. A year earlier, he had been the first Black lawyer admitted to the Ohio bar. 

Born free in 1829 in Virginia, he was the youngest son of a white planter from England and a freedwoman of African and Native American descent. After his father’s death, he and his brothers moved to Ohio, where they attended prep school, becoming the first black students admitted. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in theology in 1852 from Oberlin College. 

Because of his race, law schools in New York and Ohio denied him entrance, but he remained determined, becoming an apprentice under future U.S. Rep. Philemon Bliss and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854. He became active in the abolitionist movement, delivering speeches and helping runaways escape slavery. 

“The enslavement and degradation of one portion of the population fastens galling, festering chains upon the limbs of the other. For a time these chains may be invisible; yet they are iron-linked and strong; and the slave power, becoming strong-handed and defiant, will make them felt,” he said. “White Americans cannot stand as idle spectators to the struggle, but must unite with us in battling against this fell enemy if they themselves would save their own freedom.” 

During the Civil War, he enlisted hundreds of Black Americans to fight for the Union Army, and when the war ended, he argued that those who fought in the war had earned the right to vote. 

“A nation may lose its liberties and be a century in finding it out,” he said. “Where is the American liberty?” After the war ended, Langston became education inspector for the Freedman’s Bureau and later helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Two years later, he served as a U.S. minister to Haiti. He founded the law school at Howard University and later served as the first president of what is now known as Virginia State University. In 1890, he became the first Black Virginian to serve in Congress — one of the last African Americans to serve in that capacity before the Jim Crow era arose at the end of the 19th century, Southern states disenfranchising black citizens. He practiced law until his death in 1897 in Washington, D.C., and his great-nephew became one of the nation’s best-known poets, Langston Hughes.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.