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John Stewart Rock: Why Have We Never Heard of Him?

Ella Campigny C’24 discusses a prominent but little-known Black leader as part of Drew University’s Black History Month series

February 2024 – John Stewart Rock (1825-1866) was a Black teacher, physician, lawyer, and abolitionist

To be any of these is an achievement. To be all of these during this time period is unheard of, especially being a Black man of the time of slavery. He was also the first African American to be voted to practice law in the state supreme court. So why have we never heard of him before? 

My grandfather, J. Harlan Buzby, wrote a book titled,  John Rock: Teacher, Healer, Counselor. I had never heard of John Rock or really knew the full extent of his story. Left with no other books and lots of time over winter break of my senior year at Drew University, I picked up the book for the first time.

“The short, but fulfilled life and eloquent voice of John Stewart Rock are indelibly interwoven into the fabric of an important phase of American history,” he wrote.

After reading the New Jersey native’s story, and being a New Jersey native myself, I could not believe I was not taught about him in school or celebrated his strive to break barriers and represent his community. Today, I believe we should know the great work and accomplishments that John Rock’s legacy holds.

Rock supported his family through farming, but when his parents discovered how gifted he was, as he was very interested in reading and mathematics, they took what little money they had to put him through high school at an all-black school in Salem. Heavily supported by the community, the school was able to stay open for Rock to get the education he needed as a stepping stone to the rest of his accomplishments.

After four years of teaching following high school, Rock began practicing dentistry in Philadelphia. Proof of his brilliant practice is found in the writing of Professor Townsend of the American Medical College. From John Rock: “Dr. John Rock is a graduate of a medical school in this city, and is favorably known, and much respected, by the profession, having seen him operate, it gives me great pleasure to bear my testimony to his superior abilities.” 

Astounding reviews of his practice allowed Rock to move to Massachusetts and start his own dental and medical practice in Beacon Hill, which at the height of the Civil War had a large population of freed slaves. Known for its successful African American community and outspoken abolitionists, Rock was drawn to this area to practice.

Not only did Rock become a well known physician in Beacon Hill, but he also became an outspoken abolitionist whose speeches and writing moved crowds of people. During his lifetime he gave many speeches to the public about abolishing slavery. He even became a lawyer to have further influence in the courts for the African American community. Rock was the fourth Black lawyer in Massachusetts and on Monday, February 1, 1865, one day after the 13th Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery in the United States, Rock became the first Black lawyer elected to the bar of the United States Supreme Court and the first black lawyer to be presented in front of a session of Congress. 

I ask again, how do more people not know of him?

He inspired many with his speeches. He wanted to make a change, and he certainly had. Here is a quote from on of Rock’s many speeches, as captured in John Rock:

“I think I see the finger of God in all of this. Yes, there is hand-writing on the wall: ‘Break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free. I have heard the groans of my people, and am coming down to deliver them.’” 

This speech has been proclaimed as one of his best, elevating his stature as a leader and crusader for equal rights.

Reading Rock’s biography opened my eyes to the missing people in history that should be known and should be known as an inspiration. What an example he is of what great things we can do with our lives. 

So why have we not heard of him? I ask this question and write this article because he should not get lost in history. People should know this name and his story and use it to propel themselves forward into becoming their version of a teacher, healer, and counselor. 

Ella Campigny is a senior at Drew University. She is a business major and communications & media minor. She is also a member of the women’s lacrosse team.

To read in detail about John Rock’s life: Buzby, J. Harlan. John Stewart Rock: Teacher, Healer, Counselor. Salem County Historical Society, 2002. 

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