black and white portrait photograph

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “John H. Rock, colored counselor.–(Photographed by Richards, Philadelphia).” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Dr. John Swett Rock (1825-1866) was a successful abolitionist, orator, doctor, dentist, and lawyer. Rock was born in Salem, New Jersey, in 1825 to free African American couple Catherine and John Rock. Catherine and John Rock made sure their son would attain a formal education. Opportunities for even primary-level education were rare in the early nineteenth century as most public schools barred Black children even though their parents paid taxes. In spite of this, Rock managed to graduate from the American Medical College in Philadelphia. He was rejected the first time he applied due to his race, but was accepted the second time.1

Rock lived in New Jersey until 1850 then moved to Philadelphia—where he opened up his first private medical practice. He again moved to Boston in 1853 where he started practicing dentistry and cared for free and fugitive African Americans alike. In Boston, Rock opened a medical office on 6 Tremont Street, where he mostly treated injured or ill fugitive slaves as part of the Boston Vigilance Committee.2 During this time, he spoke in front of both Black and white audiences across the Northeast and achieved a reputation as a prominent orator.

Eventually, Rock’s health began deteriorating, prompting him to seek medical attention in Paris. Upon his return to the United States, Rock was advised to change to a less demanding career. He thus decided to study law. In 1861, Rock was one of the first African American attorneys admitted to the Massachusetts bar.3 He became the first African American to argue as an attorney before the US Supreme Court.

Rock was also an accomplished orator. The October 21, 1859 issue of The Liberator described Rock as “[having] a good voice, good delivery, and a manner which indicated self-passion without conceit.” His speeches presented African Americans as valuable members of society, disputed prejudicial stereotypes, and denounced discrimination and slavery. Among his most renowned speeches were “The Unity of the Human Race” and an untitled speech that he gave at a commemoration of the 1755 Boston Massacre.

Dr. Rock’s activism and reputation was highly regarded. It is no surprise, therefore, that he was chosen to be a delegate in the 1855 National Colored Convention. He served as one of four secretaries, wrote the rules for the convention, and visited Passmore Williamson, a white man who was arrested for helping runaway slaves.4 In the convention, Rock served as a figure up to whom individuals could look. The convention called on African Americans to lead the fight for equality through their industrious rise. He died of tuberculosis at age forty-one in 1866 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.5


Anonymous and Chika Egbe, Taught by Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware Spring 2013.

Edited and Revised by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


  1. “John Rock.” Online Law School – Degree – Northwestern California University. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. Link
  2. “John S. Rock – Black History Biographies | The Black Heritage Commemorative Society – Black History Biographies | The Black Heritage Commemorative Society.” Black History Biographies | The Black Heritage Commemorative Society » Black History Biographies from the Black Heritage Commemorative Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. Link
  3. “Rock, John S. (1825-1866) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. Link
  4. 1855 National Colored Convention
  5. FindAGrave. “John Swett Rock.” Link