There are so many true heroes in black American history that it’s hard to choose just one or even a dozen. This year for black history month, I wanted to highlight some people that are a bit less well-known than, say, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, or Martin Luther King. I began last week with Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African-American to cast a vote. Today, I would like to introduce you to John Swett Rock, the first black lawyer admitted to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court, a man who in his short 41-year life, was a school teacher and administrator, dentist, physician, lawyer, and human rights and abolitionist activist. Quite a plateful, wouldn’t you say?
Mr. Rock was born in Salem County, New Jersey, on October 13, 1825. Living in a slave-free state but with modest means, his parents rejected the common but often necessary practice of putting black children to work instead of attending school. They continued to support their son’s diligent pursuit of education through the age of 18, and Rock returned the favor by demonstrating a deep love of learning and a brilliant intellect.
At age 19, proficient in Greek and Latin, Rock took a position as a teacher at a black public grammar school in the town of Salem. But he had greater things in mind: while teaching there during the years 1844–1848, he apprenticed himself to two white doctors, Quinton Gibbon and Jacob Sharpe, immersing himself in their libraries each day after his teaching duties. By 1848, Rock was exceptionally well versed in medicine, and sought but was refused entrance to medical school that year because of the colour of his skin. Demonstrating the resolve that would characterize his entire life, he began an intense study of dentistry, again on his own. Obtaining a dentistry certificate, he opened a private practice in Philadelphia in 1850. The practice was immediately successful, but Rock had not given up on becoming a physician. He gained admission to Philadelphia’s American Medical College and received his M.D. degree at the age of 26 in 1852.
Rock made his mark in Philadelphia as a medical man of brilliance, and as a strong, eloquent advocate for African Americans. He married Philadelphia native Catherine Bowers in 1852, and the following year, having decided the northern, liberal environment in Massachusetts would be better suited to them, the couple moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill. There, Rock opened another successful practice in dentistry and medicine, and became increasingly involved in black advocacy. He served first as a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, giving free medical services to fugitive slaves, and then in 1855, as a delegate to the Colored National Convention in Philadelphia. In 1856, he was recorded as asking the Massachusetts legislature to delete the word “colored” from state documents.
During this period, Rock earned his lifelong reputation as a brilliant abolitionist orator. He argued in favor of black self-improvement and began speaking of the “inherent beauty” of African people and their culture. In 1858, the 33-year-old Rock delivered one of his most famous speeches in which he likely became the first person—and perhaps the last until the civil rights movement of the next century—to assert that “black is beautiful.” In these and all his speeches, Rock urged his listeners to take direct action. He demonstrated his own commitment by joining with other Blacks in organizing for the new, antislavery Republican Party (yes, they were once better than they are today).
For several years, a chronic illness, the precise nature of which is unknown, had seriously threatened Rock’s health. Using his knowledge of the latest medical developments, Rock made contact with a renowned group of physicians in Paris who agreed to take him on as a patient. Getting to France, however, proved an ordeal. The administration of President James Buchanan ruled that Rock could not be granted a passport because in the infamous Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court had ruled that Blacks could never be considered full citizens, free or not. Massachusetts, however, took the unprecedented step of issuing him a passport of its own, and Rock sailed for France in the summer of 1858.
After undergoing surgery, Rock toured France and studied the French language and literature, returning to Boston in February 1859. But his prognosis was poor, and he was advised to give up his medical and dental practices. It seems unlikely that Rock’s physicians intended him to replace medicine with a new, equally strenuous career as a lawyer, but this is what he did, and in 1861, he opened his own law practice. His offices soon became a favorite haunt of abolitionist activists and politicians. As a lawyer, Rock at first expressed impatience at the slow pace of newly elected President Lincoln’s actions on behalf of Blacks, but when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he changed his mind. When Congress authorized the creation of all-black regiments to help fight the south, Rock became one of the main recruiters for Massachusetts regiments.
In 1865, Rock made his greatest mark in history when in a widely celebrated breakthrough, he was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. Again, progress had not come easy. The previous year, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, had blocked Rock’s admission. But Taney died in October 1864 and was replaced by Salmon P. Chase who assented to Rock’s presence. In a stark reminder of reality as he boarded a train for the trip back to Boston, Rock was briefly placed under arrest because he lacked the travel pass still required of Blacks in the nation’s capital.
Still in chronically poor health, Rock had caught cold during the Washington ceremonies and never recovered. His health continued to deteriorate, and in December 1866, he died in Boston. His short life was a trailblazing combination of intellectual brilliance, professional success, and political action.