John S. Rock (1825-1866) was born to free black parents in Salem, New Jersey. He was educated in the public schools and became a grammar school teacher between 1844 and 1848. He also studied medicine while working as an assistant to white doctors. After being denied admission to medical school because of his race, Rock pursued dentistry and opened a dental practice in Philadelphia. Although he was not afforded the necessary opportunities, he remained diligent in becoming a physician. Through perseverance, he was admitted to the American Medical College and graduated with a medical degree in 1852.
Dr. Rock moved to Boston where he established a successful practice that often offered free services to escaping enslaved persons. As a prolific orator, he lectured on the abolition of slavery as well as suffrage for Blacks. In 1858 he delivered a powerful speech titled, “Whenever the Colored Man is Elevated, It Will Be by His Own Exertions”. Rock’s analysis of racism and pride in his African ancestry was profound. In fact some scholars believe his proclamation of “Black pride” became a central part of the Black Power movement a century later. This speech asserts the courage of Blacks to fight for freedom and that “Black is beautiful”. He also protested and challenged the 1857 Dred Scott Decision in this monumental speech.
After health issues forced him to give up his medical practice in 1859, he decided to pursue a career as a lawyer. In 1861 he became one of the first African Americans admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and was appointed Justice of the Peace for Suffolk County. Through the conflict of the Civil War, Rock remained relentless in advocating for the abolition of slavery. Additionally, he was a major recruiter for the Black volunteer regiments from Massachusetts.
In 1865, Rock became the first African American to be accorded the privilege of pleading before the Supreme Court. Rock’s presence was approved by Salmon P. Chase, who replaced Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision. Still in poor health, Rock became ill during the Washington ceremonies and never recovered. His health continued to deteriorate until his passing in 1866.
This abolitionist, teacher, dentist, physician, and lawyer was a brilliant combination of intellectual power, professional success, and political action. As we observe the remarkable heroism of those in the medical profession during this pandemic, let us not forget the trailblazers that proceeded them. I know many African Americans in the medical field and they are often called to be more than their occupation. Like Rock, they are needed to be examples of social uplift and ethical leadership for the discounted and disenfranchised.
Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center