John Rock (1825-1866) was one of the first African Americans with a medical degree. Also trained as a dentist and lawyer, Rock was the first African American to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was a passionate abolitionist and civil rights leader and held a strong belief in the dignity and rights of all Americans.
The son of free parents, John Rock was born on October 13, 1825, in Salem, New Jersey, a small town near Wilmington, Delaware. His middle name is listed as either Sweat or Swett. Although his family was poor, his parents encouraged John to pursue his education as best he could. From an early age, Rock showed a tremendous interest in books and learning, spending much time reading. He attended the Salem public schools.
In 1844, at the age of 19, he accepted a teaching position at a one-room school in Salem. Although he enjoyed teaching, Rock deeply desired to become a doctor. After teaching for six hours a day and spending two more hours tutoring students, he apprenticed after work with two local doctors, Dr. Shaw and Dr. Gibson. With the doctors' medical libraries at his disposal, Rock often added another eight hours of reading to his day. Some speculate that Rock's overexertion as a young man made have contributed to his poor health and early death.
After four years of teaching and apprenticeship with Shaw and Gibson, Rock prepared to enter medical school. However, because he was black, no medical school would admit him. Discouraged but not ready to give up his dream completely, Rock began studying dentistry. At that time, an academic degree was not required to practice dentistry. He found a job doing chores for a local dentist, who was so impressed with Rock's intellect that he made the young man his apprentice. In 1849, after a year learning the dental profession, Rock was ready to open his own office. Because he knew that few if any white patients would see him, Rock decided to establish his practice in Philadelphia, which had one of the country's largest populations of free blacks.
Became a Doctor
Rock displayed such skills in making dentures that he won a silver medal. But after two years, it was clear that Rock could not sustain himself financially being a dentist. Most free blacks in Philadelphia could not afford to pay for dental work. In 1851, Rock became the director of Apprentices' High School, a night school for the city's black population. In 1852, most likely due to the influence of white doctors, who supported his cause, he was allowed to enroll in the short-lived American Medical College in Philadelphia. Once again proving his exceptional intellectual abilities, Rock graduated with his medical degree in 1852.
During his two years in Philadelphia, Rock also became involved in the temperance movement and abolitionist efforts. He soon earned a reputation as a public speaker of considerable power and persuasion. The second half of his life would be dominated by his advocacy of racial progress.
In 1853, Rock moved to Boston to open a medical and dental office. Boston was the home of a well-organized, influential group of black leaders and a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. After setting up his business in Boston, Rock began giving many speeches on racial issues that earned him public notice. By 1855 he was traveling throughout New England, and occasionally farther west, to deliver public lectures. His most well-received and famous lectures were "The Unity of Human Races," "The Light and Shade of the African Character," and "Races and Slavery." In 1856 he addressed the Massachusetts Legislature on "The Unity of Human Races," and the speech won him great reviews.
In his thirties Rock's health deteriorated, probably due to the effects of tuberculosis, and his illnesses limited his activities. In 1857, after undergoing several surgeries, Rock was forced to halt his medical practice. Believing that he could receive more advanced care overseas, he made plans to sail to France. Friends offered financial support for Rock's journey, and a farewell party was held at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. But U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass denied his application for a federal passport. Cass claimed that a passport was evidence of citizenship, and since African Americans did not hold citizenship rights, no passport could be issued. Activists were outraged, citing numerous previous examples of African Americans obtaining passports. Finally, the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the Massachusetts Secretary of State to grant Rock a passport.
Sought Improved Health in France
In May 1858, Rock set sail for France. Rock remained in Paris for eight months under the care of Dr. Auguse Nelaton, a noted professor, surgeon, and member of the French Academy. Nelaton operated on Rock and recommended he give up his medical practice and speaking engagements. When Rock returned to Boston in the early months of 1859, he published an article in The Liberator in which he said that his health was so much better that he could again practice medicine. In fact, Rock could not sustain his medical career due to the long hours and physical demands of caring for his patients. Finally he abandoned his medical and dental practice completely but continued his abolitionist activities.
While in France, Rock had studied German and French. When he returned Rock displayed his new linguistic abilities in various articles, most often for The Liberator. Rock's deepest commitment was to justice for his race. His language in his political essays and speeches was bold, brash, and unapologetic. According to Eugene P. Link in the Journal of Negro History, "For Dr. Rock to suggest that the Negro was a superior race in many attributes, was outrageous, beyond the pale." Yet, not only did Rock suggest that his race was high-minded, he also half-humorously noted that he was quite pleased with his complexion and preferred it to the pale skin of his white counterparts. Some activists later credited Rock with inventing the phrase, "Black is beautiful," which became popular in the 1960s.
Became a Lawyer
No longer practicing medicine, Rock began to study law. Most likely with the assistance and tutelage of Robert Morris, Boston's best-known African American lawyer, Rock passed the bar on September 14, 1861. Almost immediately after Rock's admission to the Massachusetts bar, the governor and the Boston city council appointed him to be justice of the peace in Boston and Suffolk County. In addition, Rock opened a law office on Tremont Street in Boston.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Rock could not contain his desire to contribute to the cause of freedom. Despite his deteriorating health, he continued traveling and giving lectures around Massachusetts and in Washington, D.C., during 1862.
Admitted to the Supreme Court
In the last years of his life, Rock set his sights on one more milestone achievement. He wanted to gain admittance to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Traditionally, the chief justice of the Supreme Court determined who would be granted the privilege of bringing cases before the nation's highest court. When Rock began his quest, the Chief Justice was Roger B. Taney, who had ruled against the citizenship rights of African Americans in the Dred Scott case.
When Taney died in October 1864, Rock saw his opportunity and seized it. The new chief justice was Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln's former Secretary of Treasury and an opponent of slavery. With the assistance of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who petitioned Chase on Rock's behalf, Rock was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court on February 1, 1865. The press noted the significance of Rock's admittance, with many commentators noting that the Dred Scott decision had been effectively overturned. If a black man could appear before the Supreme Court, it would be preposterous to claim that African Americans had no rights of citizenship.
After his admittance to the Supreme Court, Rock was received by the U.S. House of Representatives, the first black to receive the honor. Ironically, he was arrested on his way home from the reception for traveling without a pass. As a result of that incident, U.S. Representative James A. Garfield (who would later become president) introduced a bill that abolished the requirement that black Americans carry passes.
Throughout his life, Rock's causes were numerous and varied. He unsuccessfully petitioned the Committee on Federal Relations of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to remove the word "white" from the state's militia code. He was adamantly opposed to efforts by the American Colonization Society to send American blacks to other countries. During the Civil War, after Congress approved the creation of units of black troops, Rock worked to recruit black men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments. He then lobbied for equal pay for black troops. He spoke at many important events, including the 1862 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men.
Like other black leaders of the time, Rock encouraged self-improvement. He accused the African American community of cowardice for refusing to revolt sooner. He called upon blacks to do all in their power to improve themselves, their situation, and their lives. However, Rock did not believe that the black community could completely rid itself of white oppression until the color line was erased. He denounced whites that mistreated blacks as being the biggest cowards. Education and economic improvement were vital to Rock's vision for a new America. He believed true equality would be achieved only when African Americans were given economic power.
According to George A. Levesque in the magazine Civil War History, Rock was like other race spokesmen of his generation in that he "appeared to subscribe to the belief that the races' own efforts at moral and intellectual improvement was [sic] the key to the amelioration of their unenviable condition." However, Levesque notes that Rock was not so naive as to believe completely in such a simple remedy: "For many leaders—certainly this was true for John Rock—the self-improvement formula was seen for what it was: not a panacea whose application would miraculously transform white racial attitudes, but a modest stratagem, an expedient, really, for ameliorating the condition of the race."
Rock never actually argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. His health continued to worsen, and he died of consumption in Boston on December 3, 1866.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, W. W. Norton and Co., 1982.
Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd edition, edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome A. Sternstein, HarperCollins, 1996.
Civil War History, December 1980.
Journal of Negro History, July 1967.
"John Sweat Rock," Notable Black American Scientists, http://www.galenet.com (February 10, 2001).