One Man and Many Obstacles

On April 21, 2018, my black teenage daughter declared: “race is all about culture. Blackness is all about oppression. Nothing else matters.” She was fifteen years old. How could this young woman of great potential and promise believe nothing else matters but oppression? It would be one thing if she had grown up poor in a public housing project with no dad and a mom strung out on drugs and older brothers in prison. Maybe then her perception of the world could be understood. But oppression is far, far from the teenager’s reality. She is privileged to live in sunny San Diego, to be the descendant of four generations of free black slave owners and the first black congressman, to be the daughter of two Ivy League-educated parents, to have an auntie with a Harvard degree, to have been educated in private schools all of her life, save one crazy year in sixth grade, and herself, to eventually attend Yale University.

In what alternate universe can my daughter fervently believe blackness equals oppression and nothing else?

Part of the problem lies in how we educate children about the antebellum past. She once said to me and her mom that “school only teaches me about slaves.” How wrong.

Imagine how different the mindset of the young would be if we gave free blacks before the Civil War their due, if we practiced a little diversity, inclusion and equity in how we teach about black achievement. Not all blacks were slaves.

We need more stories about high-achieving free blacks in the public square. We need more stories about men like John Mercer Langston (1829 – 1897).

In From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol John Mercer Langston opened his life story with the words “Self-reliance [is] the secret of success”. He did not begin by bemoaning white privilege. He did not blame The Man. He chose his words with care. Langston was sixty-four years old at the time of publishing his autobiography. He had lived through the death of his beloved parents, pioneering student success at Oberlin College, rejection from law school because of his race, trailblazing triumph as the first black lawyer in antebellum Ohio, General Inspector of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, founder and organizer of the law department at Howard University, Acting President of Howard University, Minister to Haiti, first President of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University), and service as the first black congressman from Virginia.

In the 534 pages of his life story, one will find no mention of “institutional racism” or “structural racism” or “white privilege.”

Did Langston not understand oppression?

To ask the question is to answer the question. Born on December 14, 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia, Langston entered the world with slaves all around him. Langston’s mother was a free mixed-race woman, and his father was a white slave-holding planter. His parents lived in a common-law marriage arrangement. If slavery is oppression, Langston knew oppression up close and personal more so than any living person can possibly know it. Langston’s own brother, Charles Langston, was incarcerated for his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act and Charles thundered against the law with an eloquence worthy of the ages.

If Langston understood real oppression during real slavery, why does he begin his life story with self-reliance as paramount, as the secret of success? Langston tells us why. Self-reliance fitted Langston mentally and morally for those trying and taxing duties that awaited him in life. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Self-reliance suggests the importance of avoiding conformity and following one’s own ideas and instincts. Truth is inside a person and this is where authority is to be found, not in institutions. Do what you think is right no matter what others think. Reliance on one‘s own efforts and abilities will see one through. This is how Langston understood the world.

I’ve read From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol several times. It is always a pleasure to peer into the mind of an achiever free of stereotypes and unthinking service to political agendas. As a nine-year-old orphan bereft of his guardian family, Langston faced the crisis of his young life. Gloom settled upon his spirit. His new guardian, Richard Long, asked: “what can you do?”. Langston honestly answered, “I can’t do anything.” Long asked the nine-year-old “how did [he] expect to live?” Long immediately put Langston to work driving the horse and cart and hauling brick. Years later at the age of sixty-four, Langston expressed gratitude for the “instruction and training given him, in the ways of industry and self-reliance.”

Upon graduating from college in August 1849, Langston decided upon his life’s profession: he would practice law. Consider the inner certitude of the man. There were only two other black individuals practicing law in the United States at the time – Macon Bolling Allen (1816 – 1894) and Robert Morris (1823 – 1882). There is no evidence Langston was aware of Allen and Morris as Langston clearly wrote that there were no black lawyers anywhere and that there had never been black lawyers. Langston faced “no prospect of success,” “no example of a daring and courageous forerunner” to offer guidance and encouragement. The judges and juries were all white men. Most Americans would have opposed the idea of a black lawyer. Even those favorable to Langston’s ambition offered no encouragement. A wise old black man advised Langston not to think of studying law; even white men had a hard row to hoe in making a living as a lawyer. A white abolitionist lawyer and friend of black people counseled Langston to leave the United States and live in the British West Indies. There, he might be able to eke out a fair living.

A prudent black man might have considered the landscape, thought better of ambition and pursued a career as a teacher or minister. There were clear, concrete demands for black teachers and ministers to serve free blacks in antebellum Ohio. But Langston persevered.

Langston applied for admission to law school at Ballston Spa, New York. The head of the law school, J.W. Fowler was frank about Langston’s admissions prospects. The Board of Trustees and Board of Faculty were unanimous. Langston could not be admitted because of his color. Nonetheless, Fowler invited Langston to the school for a look-see. Fowler met Langston, found Langston to be agreeable and said he would re-submit Langston’s application to the Board of Trustees and Board of Faculty. Within the next twenty-four hours, the Board of Trustees and Board of Faculty again denied Langston admission based on his race. Fowler explained that the school had an interest in working with United States Senator John Calhoun to bring more South Carolina students to the school. These students would be uncomfortable with a black student in their midst.

Fowler suggested that Langston might “edge his way” into the school if Langston could pass as a Frenchman or a Spaniard. This lure excited the greatest moral indignation from Langston. “I am a colored American; and I shall not prove false to myself, nor neglect the obligation I owe to the Negro race!” Fowler offered his sympathies which only added to Langston’s fortitude – “I do not need sympathy. I need the privileges and advantages of your law school.” In this, Langston’s heroic character was shown.

We need more black heroes like Langston. John Mercer Langston was standing up for his race when few others saw the long game of race elevation and uplift.

Langston refused to be denied his goal. He found an Ohio lawyer, Judge Philemon Bliss, who agreed to train him as a law clerk. Bliss drew no distinction based on skin color and openly gave his all to Langston’s training in the law. On September 13, 1854, Langston achieved the unimaginable. He was admitted to the Ohio bar. His achievement is all the more remarkable when one notes blacks could not vote, serve on juries or testify as witnesses at the time. Where did the steadfastness, the iron will, within Langston come from? Langston would answer with two words above all others – self-reliance!

It is hard to imagine how strongly the odds were against him. He was marked and set apart from all other lawyers due to his skin color. How would he make a living? Would he starve for lack of business? Was the white abolitionist right about there being better opportunities in the British West Indies? These fears did not speak to Langston. This was the man trained in self-discipline and race pride. “A thousand times he had been warned that the fate of the negro was sealed, and in the decree which fixed the destiny of the blackhued son of the race his own position was determined and settled.” Langston defied the expectations of thousands. Within a month of admission to the Bar, he won a unanimous jury verdict in favor of his client. And within one year, he had a prosperous practice. His clients were all white! The year was 1855 and, across the Ohio River, blacks remained slaves.

A determined purpose can always, always move mountains.

There is more to blackness than oppression.

 

W.F. Twyman, Jr. is a former law professor in search of truth in the public square.


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  1. […] John Mercer Langston sought training in the law from an Ohio judge. Langston would later become the top lawyer in his Ohio county during the 1850s, the founder of the law school at Howard University, Acting President of Howard University, and the first black congressman from Virginia. […]

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