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supreme court historical society yearbook: 1976


The Supreme Court Bar's First Black Member

Clarence G. Contee

On February 1, 1865, Dr. John S. Rock, a lawyer and abolitionist, was admitted to practice law before the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. This act marked one of the major steps toward a negation of the provocative Dred Scott decision of 1857, which had emphatically denied the citizenship rights of all Negroes in the United States. Harper's Weekly of February 25, 1865, carried a photograph of Rock, and it held that his admission to the bar of the Supreme Court, together with the Thirteenth Amendment, then in the process of ratification, tolled the end of the Dred Scott decision and its doctrines and opened a new day for all black Americans. Harper's Weekly went on to say that Rock was "known in Boston as a first class lawyer.... Mr. Rock has never been a slave. He represents the colored freeman, as Mr. [Frederick] Douglass represents the freedman." Harper's Weekly understood the significance of the admission of Rock: "The Supreme Court of the United States has taken one of a race crushed down to the earth with its own solemn sanction, has taken one who merely by the chances of birth was not himself a slave, and has placed him not indeed in marble, but upon `the enduring pedestal' of an honorable citizenship."

John Sweat Rock was born of free parents in Salem, New Jersey, a free state, on October 13, 1825. His parents were not very rich, but they did provide enough for him to be able to avoid going to work as a child. As a child growing up in Salem, he spent a great deal of his time reading, rather than spending most of his time playing with other children in the neighborhood. His parents, keenly aware of his precocity, provided the means and the encouragement for him to pursue and to continue formal education in Salem until about 1844, when he had reached the age of nineteen. He completed enough education to be able to instruct others.

His first occupation was thus as a teacher, after he had been examined and approved as qualified. From 1844 to 1848, he taught school in New Jersey in a one-room schoolhouse. Other veteran teachers praised his work. He was not content with this considerable achievement, and turned his energies to medical study. He so impressed two local Salem physicians, Dr. Sharp and Dr. Gibbon, who let him study their books and use their libraries for eight hours a day every day. Rock was also teaching six hours, and giving private lessons for two more hours. He worked almost to exhaustion.

When he completed his studies with the two doctors, he wanted to go to medical school. However, Rock found racial barriers to the doors of the medical schools in the area. He switched to the study of dentistry, and mastered this profession by the summer of 1849. He then moved to Philadelphia in January 1850 to open an office. He became so expert at dentistry that in 1851 he was able to win a silver medal for a pair of silver teeth he made and displayed. Finally, he began attending medical lectures for two years at the American Medical College, from which he earned an M.D. degree in 1852. He was thus one of the first blacks to receive a medical degree from a regular medical school, and by now had learned the professions of teacher, dentist and doctor; he was just twenty-seven years old. He was surely already one of the best educated blacks (or whites) of his time.

In 1853 Rock moved to Boston, where he opened an office to practice dentistry and medicine. In 1855, Dr. Rock had become well established in both of his medical professions, and he began to assume a leadership role. In mid-October 1855, as a delegate to the Colored National Convention in Philadelphia, he was one of the five in a delegation, among whom were Charles L. Remond, George T. Downing, Robert Purvis, and Stephen Myers, all black abolitionists, to see Passmore Williams, a black who had been jailed for refusing to tell where he hid three fugitive slaves. In December 1855, he was one of the sponsors of a dinner honoring William Nell Cooper, a black Bostonian abolitionist, who had started the litigation integrating the public schools of Boston in the famous case of Roberts v. City of Boston (5 Cushing, 198, 59 Mass. 158 (1849)). In the following year, Rock became more outspoken. In July, he urged Negroes to show their courage by some desperate action; he wanted them to prove to whites that they were not cowards.

In August, at a meeting he joined other blacks, such as George L. Ruffin and George Lowther, later two members of the Massachusetts Legislature, to support the fledgling Republican Party. Rock spoke in favor of the resolution; his speech was called brilliant, and Rock became known as a first-class Lyceum lecturer. He was now almost devoting all his time to speeches against slavery. He had also petitioned the Mayor and Alderman to delete the word "colored" from the voting and tax lists.

But his voice was to be stilled for a while, because his health had been failing ever since the mid-1850s. Rock had been operated on in the United States, and these operations had given some relief. He came to feel, however, that he could obtain the needed surgery only in France in mid-1858. His desire to go to France created a problem concerning the citizenship status of Negroes. In order to get a passport for which he applied, he had to be a citizen. Secretary of State Lewis Cass ruled that Negroes could not receive passports. The Massachusetts Legislature passed a law granting the state the right to give state passports; Rock got one of these. It was accepted by the French officials.

The esteem with which the blacks of Boston held John S. Rock was reflected in a farewell reception given him in 1857 at the Twelfth Baptist Church, a prominent black Baptist church pastored by the Reverend Leonard Grimes, also a leading Boston black abolitionist; Rock was a communicant there. But due to the difficulty he had in securing a United States passport, he did not actually leave until late May 1858. He had attended and spoken at the annual Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention when he made his famous speech. He left on the "Vanderbilt" for Le Harve, and spent eight months in France, learning the French language and literature, sightseeing and recuperating from his surgery.

His health, after showing signs of improvement, had begun its final slow descent by 1860. He gave up his dental and his medical practices. He could not give the time he thought adequate to his patients. He began the study of law; it is not known with whom he read law, but on September 14, 1861, T. K. Lothrop, a white lawyer, made the motion in the Superior Criminal Court before Judge Russell to have Rock examined. Rock passed with ease, and he was admitted on the same day to practice in all of the courts of the state. One week later he was awarded the right to be a Justice of the Peace. He opened an office on Boston's famed Tremont Street. It was a natural development for a man who attacked the laws that held the black man in bondage and without full opportunity and full citizenship.

Rock saw early in 1862 that slavery had been the cause of the war. He saw correctly that slavery would be perpetuated and extended if the South won. Hence, he watched closely the steps Congress and Lincoln took to abolish slavery. By August 1862, his patience had worn thin, and he and other abolitionists became very critical of the slow pace of Lincoln. So, when the Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, Rock, at a meeting in Boston, called the act a turning point. He softened his criticism of Lincoln, for whom he had little enthusiasm in 1860, for Lincoln had by 1863 exceeded Rock's wildest expectations. Thus, when Congress authorized the raising of black regiments, Rock became one of the main recruiters for the two black Massachusetts regiments. But by August 1864, he was among those attacking the Federal government for its failure to give equal pay and status to those black troops.

The highlight of the struggle of Rock as a lawyer came symbolically on February 1, 1865, when he was granted permission to practice before the United States Supreme Court. It had not come easily. In mid-1864, Rock had written to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to ask his aid in his request. Sumner told him that nothing could be done as long as Roger B. Taney was Chief Justice. Taney died on October 12, 1864, and President Lincoln in December appointed Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, an antislavery champion, as Chief Justice. The atmosphere changed for the better for Rock. Yet, it took some prodding for Sumner to get Chase to act to admit Rock on February 1, 1865.

Rock, who had waited for this moment in Boston, came down to Washington. The ceremony on February 1 was solemn as both Rock and Sumner stood side by side before Chase. In addition to Harper's Weekly, such other widely circulated periodicals as The Liberator, The New York Times and The New York Tribune, which carried a very detailed account of the entire proceedings, reported the action.

Fortunately for the followers of Clio, there was a reporter for The New York Tribune present at the ceremony on February 1, 1865, in the chambers of the Supreme Court. His account pointed up the historic nature of the solemn occasion:

"The black man was admitted. Jet black with hair of an extra twist--let me have the pleasure of saying by purpose and premeditation of an aggravating `kink'--unqualifiedly, obtrusively, defiantly, `Nigger'--with no palliation of complexion, no let down lip, no compromise nose, no abatement whatever in any facial, cranial, osteological particular from the despised standard of humanity brutally set up in our politics and in our Judicatory by the Dred Scott decision--this inky hued African stood, in the monarchical power of recognized American Manhood and American Citizenship, within the bar of the Court which had solemnly pronounced that black men had no rights which white men were bound to respect; stood there a recognized member of it, professionally the brother of the distinguished counsellors on its long rolls, in rights their equal, in the standing which rank gives their peer.

"By Jupiter, the sight was grand. 'Twas dramatic, too. At three minutes before eleven o'clock in the morning, Charles Sumner entered the Courtroom, followed by the negro [sic] applicant for admission, and sat down within the bar. At eleven, the procession of gowned judges entered the room, with Chief Justice Chase at their head. The spectators and their lawyers in attendance rose respectfully on their coming. The Associate Justices seated themselves nearly at once, as is their courteous custom of waiting upon each other's movements. The Chief Justice, standing to the last, bowed with affable dignity to the Bar, and took his central seat with a great presence. Immediately the Senator from Massachusetts arose, and in composed manner and quiet tone said: `May it please the Court, I move that John S. Rock, a member of the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts, be admitted to practice as a member of this Court.' The grave to bury the Dred Scott decision was in that one sentence dug; and it yawned there, wide open, under the very eyes of some of the Judges who had participated in the judicial crime against Democracy and humanity. The assenting nod of the great head of the Chief Justice tumbled in course and filled up the pit, and the black counsellor of the Supreme Court got on to it and stamped it down and smoothed the earth to his walk to the rolls of the Court."

Benjamine Quarles in Lincoln and the Negro concluded the ceremony; "A clerk came forward and administered the oath to Rock, thus making him the first Negro ever empowered to plead a case before the Supreme Court."

The Boston Journal, the home town newspaper of Rock, was also able to feature the admission of Rock. The correspondent of the paper wrote that: "The slave power which received its constitutional death-blow yesterday in Congress writhes this morning on account of the admission of a colored lawyer, John S. Rock of Boston, as a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States." The paper noted that the faces of some of the older persons present at the ceremony were knotted in rage. Even papers in England mentioned the admission of Rock into the bar of the Supreme Court. Most of the observers who reported on the act saw it as a giant step in the repudiation of the Dred Scott decision of former Chief Justice Taney. It was evident that John S. Rock had set a great legal precedent. Before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Rock had obtained one highly prestigious symbol of the citizenship status of the Negro in 1865.

While in Washington, Rock had attended a session of Congress; he was the first Negro lawyer to be received on the floor of the House. Congressman John D. Baldwin of Massachusetts, former editor of The Commonwealth and of The Worcester Spy, had escorted Rock to a seat. Baldwin was a close friend of Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson, also a Massachusetts politician of some influence. Rock was warmly received by some of the leaders about to shape Reconstruction policies. Unfortunately, as Rock was returning to Boston, he was brought back to reality when he was arrested at the Washington railroad station for not having his pass. James A. Garfield, a Congressman from Ohio and later a President, thereafter introduced a bill that abolished required passes for blacks.

It appears as if the direct illness that brought Rock's remarkable career to an end began the day before Rock was admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court. He had attended the Presbyterian church of the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a famous black leader and abolitionist, the day before, on January 31, 1865. He caught cold. He was already in a weakened state of health, and to catch cold in the winter in those days was serious. When he returned to Boston, he had to appear at gatherings honoring him and in the interest of his race. His health continued to deteriorate rapidly.

On December 8, 1866, The Boston Commonwealth published his obituary and eulogized Rock; "John S. Rock, Esq., the talented attorney who was presented by Senator Charles Sumner, two years since to the Supreme Court for practice died on Monday last in this city, of consumption. He was skilled in medicine, having practiced in that profession ere embracing the law, and was also a speaker of grace and ability." Rock had actually died on December 3, at 83 Phillips Street, where he had lived with his mother and son. Rock was buried with full Masonic honors, since he was a Mason, from the Twelfth Baptist Church, where he had worshipped as a member for a long time, with the Reverend Mr. Grimes presiding, and he was laid to rest in the Woodlawn Cemetery. His tombstone contained the fact that he had been the first Negro lawyer to have been admitted to practice before the Bar of the Supreme Court. The inscription on his tombstone reads: "John S. Rock, Oct. 13, 1825, Died Dec. 3rd, 1866. The 1st colored lawyer admitted to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court at Washington; On motion made by Hon. Charles Sumner, Feb. 1st, 1865."

Clarence G. Contee is associate professor of history at Howard University.

Copyright 1975, The Supreme Court Historical Society

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