John S. Rock was the first black attorney admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar.
Rock was born to free parents in Salem, New Jersey on October 13, 1825. Education was very important to the family, and though not wealthy, his parents were able to provide enough so he wouldn’t have to start working at a young age. With his parents’ support Rock was able to continue his education until he was nineteen.
Rock loved reading and educating himself. Throughout his life he had several professions. His first was teaching. From 1844 to 1848 he taught in a one-room school in New Jersey. He was good at his job but was not content. While working as a teacher, he began looking into the study of medicine. Two local white physicians, whom he admired, let him use their library and study their medical books.
In 1848 Rock tried to enroll in a nearby medical school. His application was rejected because of his race. Disappointed, he turned to the study of dentistry and in 1850 opened a dentistry office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rock was an innovative dentist and became known for his ability to make false teeth. In 1851 he actually won a medal for a set of silver false teeth that he made.
Rock seemingly enjoyed his dentistry work, but never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor. He was eventually able to attend medical lectures at American Medical College and received his medical degree in 1852. Shortly thereafter he moved to Boston and opened a medical and dentistry practice in 1853. Most of his patients were runaway slaves passing through Boston on their way to Canada.
Rock was an abolitionist and regularly spoke out against slavery and the treatment of black men and women. He was critical of President Lincoln for the slow pace to end slavery. He also petitioned city officials to remove the word “colored” from voting and tax lists.
When Rock’s health began to fail he choose to go to France for the surgery that he needed. His departure was delayed because, at the time, blacks were not allowed to have passports. However, by this time Rock had become such a beloved and respected figure in Boston that prominent white citizens intervened on his behalf and he was granted a passport to travel to France.
Rock remained in France several months recuperating from surgery and learning the French language. When he return to American his health improved but soon began to fail again. Doctors told him that he needed to slow down so he gave up his medical practices and began studying law which was less stress on the body. In 1861 he became a licensed lawyer in the state of Massachusetts.
Even with failing health Rock continued speaking out against slavery and like other abolitionists, believed that slavery would be extended if the south won the Civil War. When Congress authorized the recruitment of black troops, he became a recruiter for Massachusetts black regiments. He also attacked the government for not giving equal pay to black soldiers.
As a lawyer John S Rock advocated for the rights of blacks and represented many runaway slaves. The highlight of his career came on February 1, 1865, when he was licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
John S. Rock was one of the most educated men of his time, black or white. He died on December 3, 1866 before he was able to try a case before the US Supreme Court. Get Activity for Students Grades 4-8: John S Rock Crossword Puzzle