John S. Rock

John Rock. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Digital ID # cph 3c10530

An eloquent African American activist and master of several professions, John S. Rock (1825–1866) was born in Salem, New Jersey, to free black parents. Educated in the public schools, he was a grammar school teacher between 1844 and 1848. During this time, he also studied medicine while working as an assistant to two white doctors. After being denied admission to medical school, Rock studied dentistry with Dr. Samuel C. Harbert in Salem and subsequently opened a dental practice in Philadelphia in 1850. He had not given up on being a physician, however, and after renewed effort, he was admitted to the American Medical College and graduated with a medical degree in 1852. Following his marriage to Catherine Bowers in that same year, he and his wife moved to Boston where Dr. Rock established a successful practice that offered free services to fugitive slaves. A gifted orator, he lectured on behalf of the abolitionist cause, voting rights for free African Americans, and the newly formed Republican Party. After poor health forced him to give up his medical practice in 1859 (by 1861, he had also given up dentistry), the undaunted Rock pursued a career in law. In 1861, he was one of the first African Americans admitted to the Massachusetts Bar; in September of that year, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Boston and Suffolk County, Massachusetts. By then the country was at war, and throughout the conflict Rock was a tireless advocate for abolition of slavery. Like Frederick Douglass, he was an enthusiastic recruiter for the black volunteer regiments from Massachusetts. On February 1, 1865, the day after the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Senator Charles Sumner introduced a motion at the U.S. Supreme Court; when it passed that same day, John S. Rock became the first African American admitted to practice there. Rock's declining health prevented him from fully exercising this hallmark privilege. He died of tuberculosis in December 1866.

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