John Mercer Langston (December 14, 1829 – November 15, 1897) was an American abolitionist, attorney, educator, activist, diplomat, and politician. An African American, he became the first dean of the law school at Howard University and helped create the department. He was the first president of what is now Virginia State University, a historically black college.
Born free in Virginia to a freedwoman of mixed race and a white planter father, in 1888 Langston was elected to the U.S. Congress as the first representative of color from Virginia. Joseph Hayne Rainey, the black Republican congressman from South Carolina, had been elected in 1870 during the Reconstruction era.
In the Jim Crow era of the later nineteenth century, Langston was one of five African Americans elected to Congress from the South before the former Confederate states passed constitutions and electoral rules from 1890 to 1908 that essentially disenfranchised blacks, excluding them from politics. After that, no African Americans would be elected from the South until 1973, after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to enforce their constitutional franchise rights.
Langston's early career was based in Ohio where, with his older brother Charles Henry Langston, he began his lifelong work for African-American freedom, education, equal rights and suffrage. In 1855 he was one of the first African Americans in the United States elected to public office when elected as a town clerk in Ohio. The brothers were the grandfather and great-uncle, respectively, of the renowned poet Langston Hughes.