John Stewart Rock was born on October 13, 1825 to free black parents in Salem, New Jersey. Rock’s parents encouraged him to complete his education, something that was uncommon for even whites during that time period; but by the age of 19, he had completed enough schooling for him to work as a teacher.
He worked for four years in a one-room school in Salem, where he gained the adoration of his students as well as veteran schoolteachers. Rock worked hard with his students every day, holding class for six hours and then offering extracurricular tutoring sessions for two hours. During this time, Rock was also intently studying medicine for eight hours each day under Dr. Shaw and Dr. Gibson, two white physicians from the area.
From Rock Bottom to Graduation
Rock applied to medical school in 1848, but faced rejection due to his race. This did not slow him down though; he decided to switch fields, choosing dentistry, and opened his own practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in January of 1850. Rock was finally admitted to medical school soon after, and graduated from the American Medical College of Philadelphia in 1852. He became one of the first African Americans in the country to receive a degree from medical school.
In 1853, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he established his own dentist and medical practice. He received countless patients throughout his time there, many of whom were fugitive slaves making their way through the Underground Railroad. He also treated members of the Boston Vigilance Committee, an integrated abolitionist organization.
As an ardent abolitionist and civil rights leader, John Rock believed in the rights of all American people, and became a distinguished public speaker who constantly advocated for equal rights. Rock became determined to seek out the abolition of slavery after the infamous Dred Scott decision.
Laying Down the Law
In 1861, the New Jersey-native gained admittance to the Massachusetts Bar and then opened his own private law office to more thoroughly fight for the rights of African American people. On January 31, 1865, Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery. Soon after, John Rock became the first African American to be received on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Rock’s health began to decline over the years, and it only fell further when he became ill from a common cold. On December 3, 1866, Rock died of tuberculosis in his mother’s home in Boston at the age of 41. John Rock had an unimaginable career as an abolitionist, lawyer, doctor, dentist, and teacher. His accomplishments were both enormous and historically relevant; he is an immensely significant individual in this country’s past, and his deeds will never be forgotten.
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