Black History: Special Delivery!!
John S. Rock was born to free parents in Salem, NJ. He began his professional career at age 19 working as teacher from 1844-1848. While still a teacher, he began studying medicine with two white doctors. Initially denied entry, he, was eventually admitted to American Medical College in Philadelphia, PA. Rock graduated from medical school in 1852. He also married Catherine Bowers in 1852. While attending medical school Rock maintained a dental practice and also continued to teach classes for blacks at a night school.
At the age of 27, Rock relocated to Boston, MA where he opened a successful medical and dental practice. As part of his medical practice He was hired by a group of abolitionists known as the “Vigilance Committee” to provide medical treatment to fugitive slaves. Working with enslaved fugitives, had a profound impact on Rock and he became a spokesperson and sought after speaker for the abolitionist cause. Rock challenged the U.S. government to end slavery and encouraged educated African Americans to use their skills and talents to assist their communities. In 1861, Rock became one of the first African Americans to be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar before the Civil War. He was then appointed as Justice Of The Peace for the City of Boston and Suffolk County. Rock was also instrumental in helping to organize the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which was the first officially recognized African American unit in the Union Army during the Civil War. Rock later championed equal pay rights for the 54th Regiment.
Rock, is perhaps best known for becoming the first African American lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1865. During this time, his health began to deteriorate causing him to be unable to continue with his medical practice. Rock felt that he could receive better medical care in France and made plans to travel there in 1858. However, he was denied a passport by U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass. Cass sited the 1857 Dred Scott court decision, claiming Federal passports were evidence of citizenship and since African Americans were not citizens, Rock was unable to be issued a passport. The Massachusetts Legislature advocated on Rock’s behalf and, he was eventually issued a passport and traveled to France. French doctors recommended that Rock give up his medical practice and speaking engagements; which he did. Rock continued his abolitionist work. However, his health continued to deteriorate. Rock died in Boston on December 3, 1866.