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Black News and News Makers in History: John Rock

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes John S. Rock this week in Black history.John S. Rock was an American teacher, doctor, dentist, attorney and abolitionist who originated the notion of "black is beautiful." Rock was one of the first African American men to earn a medical degree and to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar and the first to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States. With a keen passion for knowledge and an incessant fight for the equality of blacks, John Rock became one of the most distinguished and educated men of his time.

John Sweat (or Swett) Rock was born on October 13, 1825 to free parents in Salem, New Jersey. He attended public schools in New Jersey until he was 19, then worked as a teacher between 1844 and 1848. He first taught in a one room schoolhouse in Salem, consistently holding class for six hours, conducting private tutoring sessions for two hours, and studying medicine.

During this period, Rock began his medical studies with two Caucasian doctors, Dr. Shaw and Dr Gibson, who allowed him to use their personal book collections and textbooks. Medical students at the time commonly undertook apprenticeships with practicing doctors, as Rock did, as a means of gaining medical training. In 1848, Rock applied to medical school, but faced rejection based on his race.

Although he was initially denied entry, Rock was finally accepted into the American Medical College in Philadelphia. While in medical school, Rock also completed an apprenticeship with a Caucasian dentist, Dr. Harbert. In 1850, Rock opened a dental practice in Philadelphia and taught classes at a night school for African Americans.

In 1851, he received a silver medal for the creation of an improved variety of dentures made of silver. and another for a prize essay on temperance.

He graduated in 1852 with a medical degree, becoming one of the first African Americans to attain a degree in medicine.

At the age of 27, Rock was well respected as a talented teacher, dentist and physician. In 1853, he returned to Boston, a city with a reputation of being the most liberal in the United States. Rock set up his own dental and medicine practice. He was commissioned by the integrated Boston Vigilance Committee, an organization of abolitionists, to treat the medical needs of fugitive slaves who had arrived through the Underground Railroad. During this period, Dr. Rock increasingly identified with the abolitionist movement and soon became a prominent speaker for that cause. While he called on the United States government to end slavery, he also urged educated African Americans to use their talents and resources to assist their community.

Like other abolitionists in the movement, such as George T. Downing and Robert Purvis, John Rock became a renowned public speaker and campaigned for the dignity and equal rights of all Americans. Initially, Rock's speeches were public notice; however, they soon began to receive positive public reviews, which led him to travel throughout New England and, occasionally, westward.

Some time after the induction of Dr. John De Grasse in 1854, Rock became the second African American to gain acceptance to the Massachusetts Medical Society.

In 1855, Rock took part in the campaign responsible for the legal desegregation of Boston public schools.

Although he and other abolitionists were determined to see that equality for black Americans was achieved, there were several significant judicial setbacks in the push for civil rights, like the Dred Scott Decision, which spurred John Rock to continue in his pursuit as an abolitionist and later ignited his determination to start a new career in law.

Rock is credited with coining the phrase "black is beautiful" during a speech he gave in Faneuil Hall in 1858 as a refutation of the western idea that the physical features of African Americans were unattractive. However, research on Dr. Rock's speeches in the Black Abolitionist Digital Archive have shown that he in fact did not say the exact words "black is beautiful", but did, in essence, talk about the beauty of the black people. John Rock's polished speeches were printed in William L. Garrison's "The Liberator" as well as in general newspapers, promoting these central ideas.

Rock's health began to deteriorate in the late 1850s. He underwent several surgeries and was forced to halt his medical practice. Believing he would receive more advanced care overseas, Rock made plans to sail to France in 1858. Rock, however, was denied a passport by U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass who, citing the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, claimed federal passports were evidence of citizenship and since African Americans we not citizens, Rock could not be issued a passport.

Outraged abolitionist supporters in Boston persuaded the Massachusetts Legislature to demand the Secretary of State grant Rock a passport. The State Department relented and Rock sailed to Paris where he met with two leading French surgeons, Auguste Nelaton and Alfred Armand Velpeau, who recommended he give up his speaking engagements and medical practice.

He returned to Boston in 1859, and in 1860, under his doctors' stipulations to cut back on his workload, he gave up his medical and dental practices and began to study law. On September 14, 1861, T. K. Lothrop, a Caucasian attorney, made the motion before Judge Russell to have Rock examined. Rock passed, becoming one of the first African Americans to be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar before the Civil War.

Soon after, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew appointed Rock Justice of the Peace for Boston and Suffolk County. He then opened a private law office, through which he advocated even more diligently for the rights of African Americans. In 1862, he spoke at the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, where he voiced his opposition to Lincoln's plan for the so-called "negro colonization" in Haiti and sided with Frederick Douglass on several issues. Rock achieved much success as a lawyer, but did not feel that he had truly gained "success" given the lack of freedom that blacks continued to experience. Rock also stated sadly that 'an educated negro feels the oppression much more than does an uneducated one'. It was thoughts similar to this one, in addition to the lack of executive action for equality, which led him to strive to attain the next level of achievements.

In 1863, Rock helped assemble the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first officially-recognized African American unit in the Union Army during the Civil War. Rock would later campaign for equal pay for these and other black soldiers.

In 1865, with support from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Rock became the first African American lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On February 1, 1865, the same day Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, Charles Sumner introduced a motion that made Rock the first African American attorney to be admitted to argue in the Supreme Court of the United States. Rock also became the first African American to be received on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

On April 9, 1866 the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed which enforced the 13th Amendment. Rock enjoyed this honor for less than a year. He became ill with the common cold that weakened his already failing health and limited his ability to commute efficiently. On December 3, 1866, John S. Rock died in mother's home of tuberculosis at the age of 41. He was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, buried with full Masonic honors. His admittance into the Supreme Court is recorded on his tombstone.

Compiled from http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/rock-john-s-1825-1866 and Wikipedia.

 

 
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