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ABA Division for Public Education: Black History Month 2001, Profile 1: John Rock


Profile -- Week 1
John Rock (1825 - 1866)

john rock, courtesy of the new york public libraryThe 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 education.

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 day.

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. Chase.

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