Profile -- Week 1
John Rock (1825 - 1866)
The first African American
to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, was a teacher, a physician, a
lawyer, and a freedom-fighter.
With a burning desire to learn, John Rock was destined to become one of the most
educated people of his day. He was born of free parents in Salem, New Jersey on October
13, 1825, in a time when few whites finished grammar school and it was illegal in many
states for African Americans to learn to read. He was a studious child, and even though
his parents were of modest means, they encouraged him and provided for his formal
In 1844, at the age of 19, he had completed sufficient schooling to become a teacher.
Teaching in a one-room school in Salem, his work was impressive, and the praise given him
by veteran teachers caught the attention of two local doctors. In 1848, they loaned Rock
their books so he could study dentistry. A tireless worker, he would teach school for six
hours, tutor private students for two hours, and then study dentistry for eight hours each
In 1850, Rock opened a dental office in Philadelphia and a year later won a silver
medal for his work. In 1852, he began attending lectures at the American Medical College
and, at the age of 27, was one of the first African Americans to receive a medical degree.
Devoted to the abolitionist cause, Rock was known for his inspiring public speeches, but
he found himself increasingly frustrated by the laws of his day. In 1860, he gave up his
medical practice and moved to Boston to study law.
His decision to become a lawyer occurred soon after one of the most infamous rulings by
the U.S. Supreme Court, known as the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott (1795?-1858) was a
slave who had sued for his liberty after spending four years with his master in a
territory where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The resulting
decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 7, 1857, declared the Missouri Compromise
unconstitutional, essentially denying that African Americans have any rights and
sanctioning their continued oppression.
As a legal scholar, Rock distinguished himself and was sponsored by a white lawyer
before the Superior Court of Massachusetts in Boston on September 14, 1861. He passed his
examinations with ease and was admitted the same day to practice in all the courts of
Massachusetts. He soon opened an office in Boston and became a justice of the peace.
As the Civil War began in 1861, Rock intensified his efforts to fight for racial
equality. In his speeches, he demanded the same equal opportunities and equal rights
our brave men are fighting for. He successfully lobbied Congress to get equal pay
for black troops. The first African American to be received on the floor of the U.S. House
of Representatives, Rock was on his way home to Boston when he was arrested at the
Washington, D.C. railroad station for not having the pass that blacks were often required
to carry. The incident allegedly prompted U.S. Representative James Abram Garfield, who
later became president, to abolish the use of passes for black people.
In 1864, Rock wrote to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts requesting his help in
becoming admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Senator Sumner replied that
nothing could be done as long as Roger B. Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision, was
still chief justice. When Taney died, Lincoln replaced him with an abolitionist, Salmon P.
On February 1, 1865, Congress approved the 13th Amendment ending slavery.
Soon afterwards, Rock was ushered into the U.S. Supreme Court and took the oath admitting
him to that court. A reporter for the New York Times dramatically described the
scene as the African American lawyer
stood, in the monarchial power of recognized American Manhood and American Citizenship,
within the bar of the court which had [just eight years earlier] 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 counselors on its long
rolls, in rights their equal, in the standing which rank gives their peer. By Jupiter, the
sight was grand.
John Rock died on December 3, 1866, just a few months before Congress would pass the
Civil Rights Act of 1867, the first law to embody the rights for which he had struggled so
long. A Freemason, he was buried with full Masonic honors at the age of 41.
In his speeches and throughout his professional career, Rock encouraged African
Americans to work hard to improve themselves. He strongly believed that Whenever the
colored man is elevated, it will be by his own exertions.
Permission to use the above image of John Rock was granted by:
Photographs and Prints Division
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
This image first appeared in Harpers Weekly, February 25, 1864, p. 124. Photo of
John H. Rock. Wood engravings. [photographer credit: Richards, Philadelphia]
This story about John Rock is based on an article by Richard L. Nygaard, a judge of the
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The article appeared originally in
the journal Experience and was reprinted in the ABA publication Law Day Stories. Other sources include Black Facts Online and the National Park Service Boston African
American National Historic Site.
Next week: (Week 2)
Who was the first African American woman to hold a U.S.
ambassadorship and a presidential cabinet post?
Black History Month 2001 | Links