February 1, 2019
He was told it could never happen. He was told he was inferior and had no rights. He was told he was unfit to associate with white people. But justice was finally going to be served. As Republican Party founder Senator Charles Sumner escorted him into the courtroom, the two men stood in front of the Justices as Sumner made a motion that he be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Within moments, John S. Rock became the first black man to be given the permission to argue in front of the highest court in the land.
On October 13, 1825, in the town of Salem, New Jersey, John and Marie (Willett) Rock welcomed John Swett Rock to their family. Despite being in a slave state and poor, the family enjoyed the liberty and freedom so many African-Americans did not experience until after the . At the time, education even for white children was uncommon, and even rarer for blacks. In fact, several slave states passed laws forbidding it for blacks, including free ones. The Rock's understood how important a formal education would be for their son and made it a priority for John. Most poor parents needed their children to work, yet the Rocks sacrificed for John, instead encouraging him in his studies. He responded by drinking in everything he could. By age 18, along with the common disciplines, John was proficient in Greek and Latin. A year later, he accepted a teaching position in Salem at a black grammar school, ready to give back to the community. At the tender age of 20, he became the head of the school, yet he was far from done with his own learning.
For the next four years, in addition to his teaching duties, Rock studied medical books. Two doctors, Dr. Jacob Sterne Thompson Sharp and Dr. Quinton Gibson, gave Rock first hand experience as he apprenticed with them, often for 8 hour shifts after a full day of teaching. Well prepared for medical school, none agreed to accept him due to his race. Disappointed, but not discouraged, Rock turned to dentistry as it did not require a formal degree.
Rock spent the next year apprenticing with a Salem dentist. Recognizing the large black population in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in January of 1850, he decided to open his own practice there. Showing amazing talent for dentistry, Rock was awarded a silver medal for his accomplishments on improvements he crafted to dentures. He received another medal for an essay he composed on temperance. Unfortunately, too often his patients could not afford to pay him, therefore he could not support himself. Turning his attention back to medicine, Rock gained the support of several white doctors who helped him obtain admittance into the American Medical College in Philadelphia. It only took him a year to earn a medical degree, becoming one of the very first African-Americans to do so.
In 1852, Rock married Catherine Bowers from Philadelphia. The following year, the couple decided to move to Boston, Massachusetts, where they settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill. Rock opened a dentistry and medical office that became extremely successful. Living in the town where liberty first took root, Rock soon entered the abolition movement. (see and ) Following the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Boston formed the Boston Vigilance Committee which helped fugitive slaves fleeing to Canada, including becoming a station in the Underground Railroad. (see ) Rock served as a member of the Committee, offering free medical services to the fugitives. When Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and other Congressmen started the Republican Party in 1854 with the sole purpose of abolishing slavery, Rock eagerly became a member. (see ) He traveled back to Philadelphia in 1855 as a delegate for the Colored National Committee. Also in attendance were strong abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Mary Ann Shadd. (see )
As his practice became well-known and established, Rock increased his time and attention to giving speeches regarding racial issues, slavery, suffrage, and abolition. Becoming one of the first African-Americans to gain acceptance to the Massachusetts Medical Society, Rock also gained a reputation as a brilliant orator. Citizens flocked to hear him and other abolitionists like Douglass speak as they traveled throughout New England. While Rock argued against slavery, he promoted black self-improvement in things such as education, work, and conduct. He maintained that blacks needed to become so proficient and productive that the white man would have to accept them as equals. He encouraged people to get involved, take action, and do what they could to improve their communities, advice Booker T. Washington took and lived by as he professed this same philosophy to his students and followers. (see )
During a speech on May 5, 1858, observing Crispus Attucks Day, Rock commented on “the beautiful, rich color” of the Negro. (see ) This sentiment was echoed 100 years later during the Civil Rights Movement as “black is beautiful.” He also commented on the SCOTUS decision handed down on March 6, 1857, known as the Dred Scott Decision. Rock condemned Democrat Andrew Jackson appointee Chief Justice Roger Taney who wrote the majority decision, ruling that Negroes were not, nor ever could be, citizens of the United States. Taney wrote blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” demonstrating one of the most horrific examples of legislating from the bench America has seen. (see )
That same year Rock experienced health issues believed to be tuberculosis. Learning of a surgical treatment available in France, he applied for a passport to travel out of the country. Because Taney ruled blacks were “non-citizens”, U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass denied Rock’s request. The Massachusetts legislature intervened, issuing him a state passport. After surgery in late 1858 in Paris, Rock remained in Europe for eight months studying French and German. Upon his return, he closed his practice due to his condition on the advice of his French physician. Still passionate about equal rights, freedom, and helping his community, Rock began studying law. By 1861, he was admitted as one of the first African-Americans to the Massachusetts bar and had his own law practice. Shortly after, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Boston and Suffolk County by Governor John Andrew, an abolitionist and organizer of Massachusetts’ Republican Party.
After Congress approved the enlistment of black men into the Union Army in 1863, Rock helped recruit and assemble young black men for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. This was the first black unit officially recognized in the Union Army and was commemorated in the 1989 movie Glory.
At this same time, Rock asked his friend Sen. Sumner to help him obtain admission to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. With Chief Justice Taney still on the bench, and solely responsible for bar admittance, Sumner advised against it at the time. However, upon Taney’s death on October 12, 1864, President Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase, his former Secretary of the State, as Chief Justice on December 6, 1864. (see )
With a strong antislavery advocate from Ohio as Chief Justice, Rock began his pursuit towards the SCOTUS bar. He penned a letter to Sumner, complete with multiple references, stating there was “now a great and good man for our Chief Justice, and with him I have no doubt my color will not be a bar to my admission.” Sumner sent that information, along with his own letter to Chief Justice Chase commenting, “I know not how far the Dred Scott decision may stand in the way. Of course, the admission of a colored lawyer to the bar of the Supreme Court would make it difficult for any restriction on account of color to be maintained any where.” Over the next several weeks, Sumner and Chase corresponded periodically as Chase reviewed the situation with the other justices. On January 28, 1865, he invited Sumner to make a motion to the court for Rock’s admission to the bar at a time convenient to them. Four days later, on February 1, President Lincoln signed the , the only one with a presidential signature, after the House of Representatives ratified it the previous day. (see )
Sumner seized the occasion to take Chase up on his invitation. After ushering Rock into the SCOTUS courtroom, he proceeded to say, "May it please the Court, I move that John S. Rock, a member of the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts, be admitted to practice as a member of this Court.” Several of the four justices that sided with Taney in the Dred Scott Decision were present when Chase nodded in agreement. They watched as John S. Rock, a man they said had no rights, not their equal, and could never be a citizen, was sworn in by the court clerk to argue cases in front of them.
The February 7 issue of the New York Daily Tribune captured the moment.
“This inky hued African stood, in the monarchical power of recognized American Manhood and American Citizenship, within the Bar of the Court which had 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…The grave to bury the Dred Scott decision was in that one sentence dug; and it yawned there, wide open, under the very eyes of some of the Judges who had participated in the judicial crime against Democracy and humanity. The assenting nod of the great head of the Chief Justice tumbled in the corpse and filled up the pit, and the black counselor of the Supreme Court got on to it and stamped it down, and smoothed the earth to his walk to the rolls of the Court.”
Despite the historic and momentous event, John returned to reality as he was arrested while trying to board a train back to Boston for not having the proper travel pass required for blacks in Washington D.C. There was much more work to still be done. However, Rock soon made history again as the first African-American to be received by the United States House of Representatives. Unfortunately, his personal contributions towards the advancement of blacks would soon end. When he was in D.C. to be sworn into the SCOTUS bar, he contracted a respiratory infection of which he never fully recovered. He died in Boston on December 3, 1866, at the age of 41, never having the chance to actually argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Rock was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.
Liberty, it is shameful that a man like John S. Rock has been lost to history despite his early death. He achieved more in his 40 years than most do in twice as much time. As someone who experienced extreme racism and discrimination, he never gave up. He didn’t seek out safe spaces when things got tough, he tried to make America safe by first improving himself. You may not be able to change the world, but you can always change yourself.
We cannot control how the world is going to treat us, but we have full control on how we respond to it. Whenever the world put a wall in front of John, he found a window to go through. He never accepted ‘No’ as an answer, even if it meant waiting for a while until he moved forward. The people who give up or always label themselves victims never really make a difference. They never truly accomplish anything for themselves or anyone else. America has been turned into a country of victims for the sole purpose of pushing them into turning to the government to solve their problems and misery. The truth is, only you can do that. Those in power are desperate to lead us right back into slavery with government as master. People like John S. Rock did not give their all for us to throw it all away. To do so would be an even more shameful and dishonorable act towards him and others who fought so hard to give all citizens equal liberty and freedom. Stand as solid as rock - John S. Rock.
That’s my 2 cents.
SOLID AS A ROCK