Notable African Americans In Law: John Rock

John Rock, A First Among Firsts

Black History Month stories often celebrate Thurgood Marshall, a successful attorney who became the first black appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The trail to that tribunal was broken over a century earlier by John Rock.

This month in 1865 African-American attorney John Rock was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Rock was an MD who practiced medicine and dentistry, as well as law. He died at the age of 41, just a year after being admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. And the first black justice of a state supreme court, Jonathon J. Wright of South Carolina, was seated in 1870, and served until the end of Reconstruction. Jonathon Wright was another notable African American we recognize this month.

More about John S. Rock

Not content with excelling as a teacher, dentist, physician, activist, and public intellectual, Rock embarked on a study of the law, successfully passing the Massachusetts bar in September 1861. During the Civil War, while continuing to practice law, Rock threw his energies into recruiting African Americans for the Union Army, helping to fill the ranks of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments.

Determined to rise ever higher, Rock set his sights on admission to the bar of the Supreme Court. When he achieved that distinction, the Boston Journal crowed that, “The slave power, which achieved its constitutional death-blow yesterday in Congress, writhes this morning on account of the admission of a colored lawyer, John S. Rock of Boston, as a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Today, state and local government judicial and legal functions employ some 398,000 people. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation.

Profile America is in its 21st year as a public service of the U.S. Census Bureau.

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