This Day in Legal History

February 1, 1865: John S. Rock becomes the first black lawyer admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.

John S. Rock was born in 1825 to free parents in Salem, New Jersey.  A talented, enthusiastic student, he became a schoolteacher in 1844. Shortly after, he began studying medicine under two local doctors. Unable to gain admission to the local medical schools due to racism, he switched to dentistry, opening a dental office in Philadelphia in 1850. After achieving acclaim in this field, he was finally admitted to the American Medical College in 1852, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a medical degree.

In 1853, Rock relocated to Boston and expanded his dental practice to include medicine. He also became very active in the abolitionist movement and was a well-respected, inspiring public speaker. His career path changed yet again after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott  decision. In 1860, frustrated with the case’s outcome and U.S. laws regarding African Americans, Rock gave up his medical practice to study law.

In 1861, Rock easily passed his law examinations and was admitted to practice.  He quickly opened an office and also became a justice of the peace.  During the Civil War, he was one of the two main recruiters for the black regiments. He also successfully lobbied Congress to grant equal pay to black soldiers. In 1864, he requested the assistance of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in becoming admitted to practice before the Supreme Court.  Sumner responded that so long as slavery supporter Roger B. Taney was Chief Justice, no African American would be permitted to argue before the Supreme Court.  However, Taney passed away in 1864 and was replaced with Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist. Rock took the oath admitting him to practice before the Supreme Court on February 1, 1865, in a ceremony that was covered heavily by the media.  While in Washington, Rock also became the first African American lawyer received on the floor of the House of Representatives.  Rock died of tuberculosis less than two years after his historic accomplishment.

See these sources for additional information about John Rock.

Bar Association, Black History Month
2001, Profile – Week 1, John Rock (1825-1866)

Clarence G. Contee, The Supreme Court Bar’s First Black Member