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(1874) John Mercer Langston, “Equality Before the Law”

John Mercer Langston, a prominent abolitionist and civil rights activist, was one of the earliest African American officeholders in the United States when in 1855 he was elected town clerk of Brownhelm, Township, Ohio.  During the Civil War he recruited soldiers for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment.  In 1888 Langston was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia.  In 1874 Langston returns to Oberlin College (from which he graduated in 1849) to give the speech which appears below.

MR. PRESIDENT AND FRIENDS: I thank you for the invitation which brings me before you at this time, to address you upon this most interesting occasion. I am not unmindful of the fact that I stand in the presence of instructors, eminently distinguished for the work which they have done in the cause of truth and humanity. Oberlin was a pioneer in the labor of abolition. It is foremost in the work of bringing about equality of the Negro before the law. Thirty years ago on the first day of last March, it was my good fortune, a boy seeking an education, to see Oberlin for the first time. Here I discovered at once that I breathed a new atmosphere. Though poor, and a colored boy, I found no distinction made against me in your hotel, in your institution of learning, in your family circle. I come here today with a heart full of gratitude to say to you in this public way that I not only thank you for what you did for me individually, but for what you did for the cause whose success makes this day the colored American a citizen sustained in all the rights, privileges and immunities of American citizenship.

As our country advances in civilization, prosperity and happiness, cultivating things which appertain to literature, science and law, may your Oberlin, as in the past, so in all the future, go forward, cultivating a noble, patriotic, Christian leadership. In the name of the Negro, so largely blest and benefited by your institution, I bid you a hearty Godspeed.

Mr. President, within less than a quarter of a century,