Ulysses Grant Langston overcame race to become civic leader

“You never told me he was white,” I teased Fulton Slemons when I showed the photograph to the unofficial historian of the West Side area of Salisbury. Without a hint of bemusement Fulton said, “You never asked.”

I thank the late Fulton Slemons for that lesson in conducting historical research.

For two years I had known about Ulysses Grant Langston (1872-1950) without knowing what he looked like, so when I finally located a photograph, I was stunned. In fact, for an embarrassed moment I thought there had been a mistake on the obituary.

No, “Bro. U. G. Langston” as he was called was eulogized at the First Baptist Church and buried at the Houston Cemetery.

In truth, I know relatively little about him, particularly his early life. The photo caused me to wonder what it must have been like for him to move to Salisbury where he chose not to pass as white and succeeded in establishing himself as one of the most prominent members of the community.

Langston was born in 1872 in Nansemond County, Va. According to an early biographical sketch, he was employed in Salisbury as a servant for about 12 years by William H. Jackson.

And from 1916 to 1919, Langston worked for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railways at Boston.

How Langston ended up in Salisbury is unclear but perhaps that railroad might have been the link to meeting Jackson or another prominent Salisburian, Solomon Houston (sometimes spelled Huston).

Whatever the case, he settled here and married Solomon’s daughter Julia. Solomon was a prominent member of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. Langston became a leading member of the First Baptist Church.

The Langstons lived on the south side of Church Street between the two churches in the neighborhood then known as Georgetown where Langston first opened a livery business and then a grocery store and confectionary where Business Route 50 is now located.

They were involved in managing the Houston Cemetery located east of the railroad tracks. And for a time the black owned and operated Houston Bank was located on their property.

Preliminary sleuthing indicates that Langston had a brother, the Rev. Robert Jackson Langston who pastored the Zion Baptist Church of North Philadelphia from 1926 until his death in 1942.

One account describes Robert as having a reputation for laying the early groundwork in local civil rights advocacy and that he had close ties to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of Harlem.

They were sons of Jesse and Ariminta Lee Langston. Although not verified, it appears that Jesse had been free during the period of slavery and that he was held for a time in a Confederate prison during the Civil War, as letters were written to Thomas Pratt Turner, commander of Confederate military prisons in Richmond, seeking his release.

If the online family trees are accurate, it looks as if all the sons of Jesse and Ariminta were given interesting historic names including James Madison Langston and Christopher Columbus Langston.

With a faraway look Fulton added, “You know, his wife Julia was very light skinned too.” I understand Ulysses and Julia did not have children. The late Elaine Brown once smiled and said to me, “I was like a daughter to Julia and Mr. Langston.”

The Langston store was well known by the community and in particular by all the children who stopped in on their walks to and from school. Ulysses and Julia clearly viewed their community as their family.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com

 

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