Black History Month –John Swett Rock

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.

john-swett-rock-2In 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.

Black History Month — The First Black Voter

Today is February 1st … well, okay, by the time you’re reading this it’s actually February 2nd, but right now, as I am writing, it is February 1st.  February 1st marks the beginning of this year’s Black History Month.  Now, obviously I cannot give Black History Month the attention it deserves, but I do plan a few posts throughout the month.  This year’s theme could not be more relevant to the times, and although this post is not part of mine and Jeff’s project, Discord & Dissension, it ties in nicely with our theme this week.  The 2020 Black History theme is African Americans and the Vote.

black-history-2020The year 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement.  The year 2020 also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the right of black men to the ballot after the Civil War.  The theme speaks, therefore, to the ongoing struggle on the part of both black men and black women for the right to vote. This theme has a rich and long history, which begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, i.e., in the era of the Early Republic, with the states’ passage of laws that democratized the vote for white men while disfranchising free black men. Thus, even before the Civil War, black men petitioned their legislatures and the US Congress, seeking to be recognized as voters. Tensions between abolitionists and women’s suffragists first surfaced in the aftermath of the Civil War, while black disfranchisement laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries undermined the guarantees in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for the great majority of southern blacks until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The important contribution of black suffragists occurred not only within the larger women’s movement, but within the larger black voting rights movement. Through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1960s, African Americans made their voices heard as to the importance of the vote.  Indeed, the fight for black voting rights continues in the courts today.  The theme of the vote should also include the rise of black elected and appointed officials at the local and national levels, campaigns for equal rights legislation, as well as the role of blacks in traditional and alternative political parties.

So, today let’s take a look at the very first African-American to cast a vote in the United States …


America’s first Black vote was cast in New Jersey

On Feb. 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting “the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color, or previous condition of servitude” giving Black men the right to vote across the nation.

Just under a month later the first African American vote was cast in Perth Amboy, N.J. on March 31, 1870 by Thomas Mundy Peterson.

Born in 1824 in Metuchen, N.J., Peterson was the son of ex-slave Lucy Green. Peterson worked as a janitor and handyman in Perth Amboy.

After the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted, Peterson participated in Perth Amboy’s local election held at city hall over the city’s charter. A member of the Republican and Prohibition Parties, he cast his ballot in favor of revising the existing charter, making him the first African American to vote in any election in the nation.

Along with being the first Black person to vote in America, he was also the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury. Peterson would go on to be one of seven people appointed to make amendments to the charter’s revisions he voted in favor of.

In 1884, in honor of his history-making ballot, the Perth Amboy community raised the equivalent of $1,800 in modern dollars to buy Peterson a gold medallion featuring Abraham Lincoln’s profile.

“Presented by the citizens of Perth Amboy, N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 31st 1870,” the medallion’s inscription states.

Peterson died in 1904 at the age of 79. The medallion Peterson received is housed at the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. In 2017, the university loaned the medallion to the City of Perth Amboy for a presentation at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

“During the 19th century, and even up to the present day, many communities have attempted to stop African Americans from voting. Perth Amboy is different, that is, we encouraged the right to vote,” said local businessman and historian John Kerry Dyke. “The Thomas Mundy Peterson medal is more than just an award. It represents the efforts of all good people that want to enfranchise America’s voters. It embodies the concept that all men are created equal.” – Cyril Josh Baker, New York Amsterdam News, 30 January 2020