The 'Obama Before Obama'

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 7, 2008

LOUISA, Va. -- Planted in the lawn at the courthouse on West Main Street here is a gray historical marker that draws little attention. It proudly proclaims that the country's first black elected official was native son John Mercer Langston, born in this central Virginia county, the son of a wealthy white planter and an emancipated slave of Indian and black ancestry.

History seems to whisper more often than it shouts. Langston was one of the most extraordinary men of the 19th century, and yet his achievements -- prominent abolitionist, first black congressman from Virginia, founder of what would become the Howard University law school -- have largely been forgotten. In the arc of American advancement toward black political empowerment, Langston represents the symbolic beginning. Elected township clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, on April 2, 1855, he became, by many accounts, the first "Negro" elevated to public office by popular vote.

It took 153 years to get from John Mercer Langston to Barack Hussein Obama, a journey that endured the dashed hopes of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow to arrive at a moment that has stunned even those optimistic about America's racial progress. An underdog black politician has secured a major party's presidential nomination in a country where less than 4 percent of its elected officials are African Americans?

"You have to wake up and shake yourself," said historian William Cheek, who co-authored "John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65" with wife Aimee Lee Cheek. The couple is now at work on a second volume about Langston, whom, as Cheek put it, "was Obama before Obama."

Slim and debonair, and of mixed-raced parentage, Langston was highly educated, an expert in constitutional law, a community organizer (he went around Ohio setting up schools) and a soaring orator who sought to unify a divided country after the Civil War. Cheek finds ironic symmetry in the fact that the first black elected official in the land bears remarkable similarities to the man who could be the first black president.

"I wished we could have seen this in the 1850s," Cheek said of Obama's achievement. "Langston was certainly capable of being president in the 19th century. But it's not a long time if you understand how deep-seated racism is -- from 1619 all the way to the present. Just bottomless racism. It's too long for those of us who care, but I can understand it has taken this long."

Louisa County, site of one of the largest Civil War cavalry battles, is where the past and the present converge, and tradition and change are struggling to coexist. That marker in the courthouse square is a reminder that political representation for blacks started a long time ago. But the history of Louisa County in the 180 years since Langston's birth also shows that the grind often has been slow and wearisome, movement forward and movement backward.

Still a predominantly rural, agricultural county, Louisa has been one of the fastest-growing areas in the state as people have fled the cities to retire near Lake Anna or raise their kids in the country. Its population, which is 79 percent white and 19 percent black, now numbers more than 31,000. At least 15 new housing developments have sprouted in the past five years, accompanied by new businesses such as Lowe's, a Wal-Mart distribution center, and the hip Solid Grounds Coffee House in a revived section of West Main Street in the town of Louisa, the county seat. This growth, inspired by Louisa's central location -- a half-hour from Charlottesville, less than an hour from Richmond, two hours from Washington -- has fostered both greater enlightenment and a longing for the way things used to be, folks here will tell you.

John Thomasson is 86 and retired. But he still puts in a full day at his office, dabbling in real estate and rolling his swivel chair across the room to track his Goldman Sachs numbers. The building, which he owns, is on a private drive he named M.L. King Lane because, well, there was no other public recognition of the slain civil rights leader. Across the parking lot is the funeral home he owned for 53 years before selling it. Thomasson is a doer. After World War II, he trained in Philadelphia to become a mortician because, well, there were no black morticians in Louisa County. He started a local NAACP branch in the county, and a parent-teacher association. In 1979, on his second try, he was elected the county's first black supervisor.

He is a man with little patience for excuses.

"It bothers me that blacks are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are ours," he said. "Right now, it looks like too many blacks are taking the easy route -- using dope to make a living instead of making an honest living. See, so many of our people are not setting goals for themselves."

That hardly applies to Obama, said Thomasson, who never imagined that the young Illinois senator would be able to persuade enough whites to vote for him. "Whites seem to feel they are way superior to blacks," said Thomasson. "So, in other words, they think a black is not supposed to be my ruler."

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