John Mercer Langston was born free in 1829 in Louisa County, Virginia. He was active in the abolishment movement, helping slaves gain freedom along the Underground Railroad. Langston also served as a minister to Haiti and president of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate School, what is today Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. Langston was elected to Congress from Virginia in 1888 — one of only five African Americans elected to Congress from the South during the post-Reconstruction era.
More than 100 years after Langston was elected, Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott was elected in 1992. To this day, my bio states that I worked as a legislative aide for Scott, the “first African American from Virginia to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction.” Scott’s official website has the same statement.
In 2016, Virginians elected another African American — the late Donald McEachin — to Congress, 24 years after Scott’s historic victory. McEachin would reference Langston and the fact that they both represented the 4th District.
Following McEachin’s death, in February 2023, Jennifer McClellan, a former Virginia delegate and state senator, won a special election for the vacant seat in the 4th District. On March 7th, Congressman Scott, the “dean” of Virginia’s congressional delegation, introduced McClellan to a packed U.S. House of Representatives. Thunderous applause erupted at various times from the entire body when it was noted that McClellan was the first African American woman from Virginia to serve in Congress. In the well of the House, a newly sworn in McClellan would note this history and her relationship to past-African American leaders, including John Mercer Langston: “I stand on the shoulders of John Mercer Langston, the first African American to represent Virginia, also from the fourth district,” she said.
With so many references to Langston and his prominence in Virginia history, why is it that Virginians don’t know more about him or the other African Americans who were elected during and after Reconstruction? In fact, between 1869 and 1890 there were 84 African Americans elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates and 14 to the State Senate. The reason is clear — history of the state has been written and taught by white people in Virginia. During and after the Jim Crow era, whites not only disenfranchised African Americans from the political process in Virginia but wiped away references to their successes in K-12 textbooks, curricula, and teaching.
There was a recent effort to correct this injustice. On August 24, 2019, Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 39, which established the Commission on African History Education in the Commonwealth. This Commission was charged with reviewing Virginia’s history standards, instructional practices, content, and resources used to teach African American history in Virginia. A year later, the Commission produced a report that ensured African American history was a cohesive part of teaching history to K-12 students in Virginia. The Commission revised the Virginia history and social studies standards to be more inclusive and culturally responsive. One of the many recommendations that the Commission added was detailed information on John Mercer Langston. Langston’s name and background were included throughout the revised standards. Virginia elementary school students would now have the chance to learn about him and his accomplishments.
When Glenn Youngkin became governor in 2022, his State Superintendent for Public Instruction, Jill Barlow pulled the Commission’s recommendations. A new draft of the standards was issued in November 2022, with many omissions and a lack of representation that were clearly present in the Commission’s work. Unfortunately, the richness about John Mercer Langston and his accomplishments were removed except for one minor reference to him in the Grade One-Commonwealth of Virginia standard.
The waves of initiatives and policies against the teaching of diversity, equity, and inclusivity will prevent all school children from learning about great people of color, such as John Mercer Langston. Youngkin in his first act as governor issued Executive Order 1 that labeled the teaching and pedagogical use of DEI in history and other subjects as “divisive.” A member of the Youngkin Administration recently stated that “DEI is dead.” What is divisive about our school children learning about the abhorrent conditions and subjugation of slavery, or the election and politics of Langston and other African Americans during Reconstruction, or how Robert E. Lee was a symbol of the Lost Cause?
Virginia’s school population is now comprised of a majority non-white students and is continuing to trend that way. It is time that we realize that what is “dead” and “divisive” is our focus on white European males in our history. I think some of our congressional delegation, our K-12 students, and maybe most Virginians would agree.
Dr. Tom Shields is Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, Chair of Graduate Education, and Associate Professor of Education and Leadership Studies at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Richmond.