The Real "Obama before Obama"Fact & Fiction
Mr. Sauerwein is a Breaking News Editor at HNN.
Recently, HNN ran a breaking news story published by the Washington Post entitled “The ‘Obama before Obama’ ” by Kevin Merida. The article begins with the story of the purportedly first African American elected to public office, John Mercer Langston, who was from Virginia and was elected township clerk in Brownhelm, Ohio in 1855. Merida also discusses Langston’s other achievements, including being founder of the future Howard University Law School.
After a brief look at Langston’s life, Merida then weaves it with stories of black leaders in Louisa County, Virginia, where Langston was born in 1829. He also discusses some locals’ views about Barack Obama’s rise to become the Democratic nominee for President. The article focuses on the progress from Langston to Obama and is a good piece overall.
Unfortunately, there is a major error regarding the historical record with this article. Based upon two encyclopedias dealing with African American history, HNN has learned that John Langston was not the first African American elected to public office. Indeed, there were two men before him.
The first African American to be elected to a public office was Wentworth Cheswill (1746-1817) of New Hampshire. Cheswill was a prominent citizen of Newmarket, NH, and was appointed justice of the peace in 1768. He briefly served with American forces at Saratoga. After the war, he was again active in local affairs. He was elected to the position of selectman (a town administrator) for Newmarket in 1780. He served in this capacity, as well as an assessor from 1783-1787 and served in several local offices in the subsequent years. In 1806, he ran unsuccessfully for state senator.
The other African American elected to public office before Langston was Alexander Twilight (1795-1857) of Vermont. He was the first African American to earn a degree at an American university when he graduated from Middlebury College. He began a successful teaching career, which included founding a school. In 1836, the village of Brownington, Vermont elected Twilight to a one-year term in the state legislature, thus making him the first black state representative in American history. After his term, Twilight continued teaching until retiring in 1855.
Unfortunately, most comments on the article do not mention the error, and focus instead on the current political situation. A few applaud the article for the history lesson, but miss the error. Only three comments mention Twilight, and none mention Cheswill. As of Friday, June 27, 2008, the Washington Post had not responded to our queries. An automated reply stated that the paper would be investigating the article.
Overall, Merida’s article was interesting, but unfortunately, if the paper corrects the record and gives proper credit to Cheswill and Twilight, it will not have the intended effect. All three men deserve remembrance for their contributions to American history as pioneers in the participation by African Americans in our nation’s political process.
Hat Tip to HNN reader Paul Finkelman for drawing our attention to the Post's error.
Finkelman, Paul, Ed. "Cheswill, Wentworth." Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Vol. 2 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 437.
Finkelman, Paul, Ed. "Twilight, Alexander." Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Vol. 3 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 2764.
Robinson, Greg. "Cheswill, Wentworth." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, Eds. Vol. I (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 529.
Robinson, Greg. "Twilight, Alexander Lucius." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, Eds. Vol. V (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 2691.