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A study of rhetoric: John Mercer Langston and African-American politicians in postbellum south

“Langston was ‘progressive’ because he worked to immediately provide blacks with education, and ‘pragmatic’ in that he also defended the rights of poor whites, thereby appeasing white Southern prejudice,” Dinnella-Borrego says.

Born enslaved, Langston, his mother, and siblings were later freed by his white father, a Virginia planter. He became a major figure in the abolitionist movement and Ohio’s fledgling Republican Party and recruited black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War. Langston also served as general inspector of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau and was the first dean of Howard University’s law school. He would use his inheritance from his father, with whom he maintained a favorable rapport, to secure his seat in the 51st Congress.

During his brief term, Langston, whose great nephew was renowned Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, proposed a 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require a national literacy test to be implemented equally for all voters. “He believed that Americans, both black and white, needed to be educated before they could understand and seize the power of the ballot box,” says Dinnella-Borrego.

Dinnella-Borrego is writing his dissertation on six African-American members of Congress from 1865 to 1901, including Langston, with the guidance of Rutgers historians Ann Fabian and Mia Bay. His research explores the possibilities, constraints, and inconsistencies of their rhetoric and policies.

“Of course, there has been a lot of work done on Reconstruction,” says Dinnella-Borrego, who has taught American and African-American history courses at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Dominican College. “But not much has been done on placing these politicians into the larger scholarship on the post-Civil War South.”



 

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