- Feb 28, 2009
1825-1866 John Swett Rock was a pioneer African American leader and orator in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. One of America’s first black physicians and lawyers and a dedicated advocate of civil rights and self improvement, he made history as the first African American to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Man Who Never Gave Up
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:......
A Brilliant Orator
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.” ....
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....
...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. 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.