- Virginia Johnson
When Glory came out in 1989, movie audiences were excited to see a relatively unknown side of the Civil War that highlighted the sacrifices of the Massachusetts 54th, a “colored” volunteer regiment. Gripping as the story that unfolded on the screen was, there was much more to it, of course. In real life, other people’s stories became part of the regiment’s history as the Civil War gripped the nation.
John Mercer Langston, along with Frederick Douglass, acted as a recruiter for the 54th. As an abolitionist and orator, he was an excellent choice, and this task was just one of Langston’s civic accomplishments. Although he had spent most of his life in a free state, John was familiar with plantation life. His father had been a white plantation owner in Louisa County, Virginia—not far from Spotsylvania. His mother had been his father’s slave. But his parents’ story was not a common one for the era. His father freed his mother, and, although they were not allowed to marry for legal reasons, they lived together as man and wife for the rest of their days, their children considered to be freeborn.
After being orphaned at the age of four, John moved with family friends to Ohio, where he, like his brothers, would eventually pursue his education. John would graduate from Oberlin College, with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in theology. Denied acceptance to law schools in either New York or Ohio because of his race, he became a lawyer after studying law under U.S. congressman Philemon Bliss. John Mercer Langston’s successes were rather astonishing in light of the prejudice of the times. He became the first black attorney in Ohio and the first black attorney accepted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He founded Howard University’s law department and served as the first president of what is now Virginia State University.
In the bitter aftermath of the War, he ran for Congress from his home state of Virginia and contested the election results successfully, eventually being seated as the Old Dominion’s first black Congressman. In later years, he would be appointed the equivalent of an ambassador to Haiti.
Author Linda Salisbury has taken Langston’s massive autobiography, as well as family stories and other sources, to create a more accessible version of this 19th-century statesman’s life in the hopes that it might inspire young people. Her book, The Sword and the Broom: The Exceptional Career and Accomplishments of John Mercer Langston, begins almost casually, describing what might be imagined as typical scenes from his childhood, before moving on to the more documented portions of his life.
The Sword and the Broom is a good choice to help round out readers’ understanding of both the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras in Virginia from a black perspective. It contains many photographs, both historic and modern, that give a better sense of the people and places discussed. Linda Salisbury, herself an Oberlin graduate, has retired to Virginia after a career in journalism. You can visit her website at www.lindasalisburyauthor.com.