The 'Obama Before Obama'
Pioneering Native Son of Louisa, Va., Blazed Trails Under History's Radar

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."

After John Thomasson came Fitzgerald Barnes. Barnes, 44, was a local high school basketball coach until he got "pissed off" over a county bond issue and entered politics. Elected to the seven-member Board of Supervisors in 1997, he became the board's first African American chairman in 2002 and served three years. He was sitting in a coffee shop the other day, thinking about two magazine covers: One was an old Time that featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s portrait. The other was a recent issue of Newsweek featuring Obama.

"I'm living in an era where I think I'll be able to speak about Barack in the same tones that my mother and father spoke about King," Barnes said. "It just kind of dawned on me."

It also dawned on him how much weight Obama must be carrying. "People's hopes are so high, they are putting so much in him. I hope they don't expect too much -- like he's our savior or something."

Barnes carries some weight of his own. Growing up in North Carolina, "my dad always said, 'Don't use your race as a crutch,' " but always represent your race well and remember that perceptions matter.

The father named his son Fitzgerald after JFK, believing that a name like that would look impressive on paper. The father didn't want his son automatically discounted because someone figured out he was black based on his name. Barnes has adapted that instinct in his public life. "I have never felt my race in this community has ever held me back," he said.

He usually wears bow ties, he said, because they convey intellect and gravitas. He enjoys watching how people perceive him, based on his bow ties.

He is thinking that the presidential election will also be about perceptions, the changed perceptions of a nation. "It ain't going to be about race," said Barnes. "Sure, you're going to have some people clinging to the old issues -- blacks and whites. But in the fall, it's going to come down to who can help me live better."

The old perceptions died in some but live on in others. Let Janice Abercrombie, 69, tell a story. She is a white genealogist who grew up here and attended segregated schools. After marriage in 1958 she moved to Fairfax, but came back in 1974 with a 16-year-old daughter who found the county intolerable. "I knew how to live in both worlds," said Abercrombie. "She only knew how to live in Fairfax County."

One day, in a five-and-dime store here, a clerk tried to skip over an elderly black woman who was in line ahead of her daughter, "and my daughter let her have it," Abercrombie recalled. She remembers being deeply disappointed at how little her county had evolved. "I had people try to convince me that the black brain was inferior to the white brain," she said. "I stopped associating with those people."

There are fewer of "those people" now in a county that Barack Obama carried in the Virginia Democratic primary, though Democrats haven't been competitive here in the fall since 1996, when incumbent President Bill Clinton lost to Republican nominee Bob Dole by seven votes.

"Louisa's probably more open-minded than people would expect, if you think, small, agricultural town," said Jade Lourenco, one of two chef-owners of the trendy Mediterranean restaurant Obrigado, which opened just two years ago right across the street from the courthouse and Langston's marker. The nation's first black local elected official was born in 1829 on a farm about five miles from her restaurant. Lourenco was surprised to learn this.

Langston's father was Ralph Quarles, a slaveowner; his mother, Lucy Langston, was an ex-slave and bondswoman. Both parents died when he was 4, and an Ohio friend of Quarles's ended up caring for him. He was the fifth black man to graduate from Oberlin College, was elected to several local offices in Ohio, was active in the black freedom movement with Frederick Douglass, served as educational inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau and was the U.S. minister to Haiti. In 1888, he ran for Congress in Virginia's 4th Congressional District as an independent. Denied a victory, he contested the election results and finally won his seat, but it was so late in the term that he served but three months. He was unseated in the next election.

"Wow," Lourenco said. "I'm really embarrassed I didn't know about him." Barack Obama she knows about. While her fellow chef-owner, Debbie Wollett, has been a diehard Hillary Clinton backer, Lourenco has been on an emotional ride with Obama since the campaign began. It's not rational, she admits, not based on a careful study of his policies or any serious reading at all. She has been too busy for that -- perfecting her specialty, Valencian paella, and trying to make the restaurant successful. So for her, it comes down to this: "He just speaks to me in a way that other politicians haven't."

The line from Langston to Obama is something Marvin Trice latched onto immediately.

Six years ago, Trice, a painter, was commissioned to do a black-and-white acrylic of Langston that now hangs inside the Louisa County Courthouse. Trice would come home from his day job making parts for kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and work on the painting. It now hangs in the only courtroom among other paintings of historic Virginia notables, the lone portrait of an African American.

When it finally became clear that Obama would capture the Democratic nomination, Trice searched to find the right words. "I don't know if saying I'm proud would be sufficient." He thought about Langston. "It took people like John Mercer Langston to pave the way for Barack Obama," said Trice, 52, an African American. "We stand on the shoulders of a lot of people, even those who did menial things. They opened doors, and others came along and opened more doors. It's something wonderful."

There was a long period of time when African American politicians were discouraged from seeking the highest offices, and some were afraid to even try. Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972 under the slogan "Unbought and Unbossed," and arrived at the Democratic National Convention with 151 delegates pledged to her. That she was given a prominent speaking slot was seen as progress. Twelve years later, Jesse Jackson made his first run for president, after many private meetings among black leaders about who should run and if it was the right time. Jackson defied conventional wisdom by winning five Democratic primaries and caucuses, leading to a second campaign in 1988. That year he won 13 primaries and caucuses, doubled his total votes to 7 million and finished runner-up to nominee Michael Dukakis.

Doug Wilder, the grandson of slaves, understands the significance of simply trying: "When I talked about running for lieutenant governor, they said, 'No way, man, you can make it.' And when I said I'd run for governor, they said, 'This man is certifiably insane!' "

Few African American politicians have been more pioneering than Wilder, now the mayor of Richmond: He was the first black state senator elected since Reconstruction, the first black elected lieutenant governor, and the first black elected governor, all in a 20-year period from 1969 to 1989.

Of Obama's prospects to be president, he said: "The country is ready. The people are always ahead of the leaders."

* * *

Albert G. "Sambo" Johnson dropped by Hottinger Greenhouses the other day, and Eddie Hottinger and his young salesman stopped selling tomatoes and seeds and mulch and fixed their gaze on the 77-year-old man in the gray Dickies work jumper.

Sambo, as everyone in town calls him, is someone people like to listen to. A former county supervisor, for 20 years Johnson was chairman of the Louisa County Democratic Party. A white man called Sambo? Johnson explained that when he was a kid, a black family worked for and lived with his family. They had a little boy named Sambo, and Johnson's brother just started calling him Sambo, too. And it stuck.

Johnson settled into a chair to tell his stories. One of his ancestors owned slaves. "I believe he had a total of seven." His great-great-uncle, William Mahone, was a Confederate major general during the Civil War. Civil War history, along with politics, is one of Johnson's special interests.

"I don't think we ever should have had that war," offered Johnson. "That's why I have never admired Abraham Lincoln, because I think he could have avoided that war. That's a personal opinion."

He also had personal opinions about the presidential contest. Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama? He shook his head. "It's not a question of not liking them, it's a question of not thinking they're qualified." John McCain? "Hell no!"

What is this Democrat going to do? He didn't exactly say. "You'd be surprised at the number of people who are going to sit it out. What I'm telling you is my personal opinion."

And one last "personal opinion."

When the Board of Supervisors endorsed erecting a marker for Langston in the 1990s, that was a good thing, he said, the right thing. "At the time he rose, he had to have a lot of intestinal fortitude. So you can admire that."

But: "I guess you could ask 20 people in Louisa County who he was, and they wouldn't know." Sad, he said.

Johnson reached in his pocket and pulled out a few bills to pay for his grass seed and some Sevin dust to keep the bugs off the eggplant. "I want to make sure I have enough money leftover to buy me a hot dog going home."

And then Sambo was gone.

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