The 'Obama Before Obama'

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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?

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