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Michigan Legal Milestones
44. Celebrating Percy J. Langster

Percy J. Langster reading an open law book next to a bookcase


Michigan Bar Journal: Percy Langster: America's first Black prosecuting attorney: State Bar of Michigan's 44th Michigan Legal Milestone

About Percy J. Langster, America’s first Black prosecuting attorney

On November 2, 1948, Percy J. Langster made political and legal history by becoming the nation’s first Black prosecuting attorney when the people of Lake County, Michigan, elected him prosecutor.

Born in 1889, Langster grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the only Black child in his borough. He left school at the age of 8 to support his disabled mother. While shining shoes, young Percy listened to local lawyers share courtroom tales, which sparked his lifelong dream of being an attorney. Langster returned to school and became a star athlete and debater at Oil City High School. After graduation, he attended Cornell University on an athletic scholarship, but soon left when funds ran out. For the next 16 years, Langster saved money to return to college by working blue-collar jobs, including as a Pullman porter. Finally, in 1924, Langster entered Duquesne University, graduating eight years later at the age of 43 with both his bachelor’s and law degrees, the first Black student to receive double degrees from the university.

In 1933, Langster moved to Woodland Park, Michigan. He was admitted to the State Bar of Michigan, opened a law practice, and served as the first Black educational advisor for the Civilian Conservation Corps. During World War II, he put his practice on hold to become a technical advisor for the Army Air Corps. After the war, Langster settled in Baldwin and reopened his law practice. Langster was 59 when he ran for Lake County prosecutor, facing off against a three-term incumbent in the predominantly white county. Langster beat the odds, and the incumbent, by 152 votes.

After his victory, Langster declared: “I campaigned for justice to all and bias towards no man. And somehow, I think, the people grasped hold of that idea.”