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Abolitionist Dr. John S. Rock embodied black pride, perseverance

Anthony W. Neal | 12/6/2013, 6 a.m.
Dr. John S. Rock

Dr. John S. Rock, a preeminent mid-19th century black abolitionist, dentist, doctor and lawyer, was one of Boston’s most eloquent and uncompromising champions of the rights of African Americans. He was born in Salem, N.J., on Oct. 13, 1825 to free parents Maria and John Rock. Educated in the public schools, Rock became a licensed schoolteacher in 1844. He taught in a one-room grammar school in his hometown for four years.

During that period, he studied medical textbooks and applied to several medical schools, but he was denied admittance because of his color. Thus, Rock turned to the field of dentistry, and after undertaking an apprenticeship with Samuel C. Harbert, a white dentist in Salem, he opened a dental practice in Philadelphia, Pa., in January 1850.

But Rock did not give up the hope of becoming a physician. He continued to apply to medical schools and, at last, gained admission to the American Medical College in Philadelphia. While attending that school, he practiced dentistry and taught classes at a night school for African Americans. In 1851, he received a silver medal for the creation of an improved variety of dentures.

Rock graduated from the American Medical College and married Philadelphia native Catherine Bowers in 1852. The couple moved to Boston the following year. They initially boarded at 66 Southac Street, the residence of abolitionist Lewis Hayden, where escaped slaves, targeted by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, found refuge. After Rock set up a practice in medicine and dentistry at 86 Cambridge Street, the Boston Vigilance Committee — an integrated abolitionist organization of which Hayden was a member — commissioned him to provide health care to ill fugitive slaves.

Rock was the second African American physician inducted into the Massachusetts Medical Society, the first being Dr. John V. DeGrasse, who was admitted in 1854. By that year, Rock and his wife had found a home at 60 Southac Street. She gave birth to three sons, Toussaint Lewis Hayden Rock, on April 13, 1854, John S. Rock Jr., in 1856, and Julian McCrea Rock, on Oct. 10, 1857.

Before moving to Boston, Rock had already been a prominent civil rights activist, fighting for black suffrage, and delivering lectures decrying the institution of American slavery, the American Colonization Society and the Fugitive Slave Act.

Like the abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, John Rock regarded the American Colonization Society as the slaveholder’s puppet and the black man’s enemy — an organization concerned solely with banishing free blacks. It supported neither the abolition of slavery nor the freeing and expatriation of the enslaved, and in Rock’s view, its scheme to remove free African Americans from their native country was no less wicked in principle than the African Slave Trade.

Rock was a gifted speaker. His lectures received favorable reviews. The Middlesex Journal, for example, wrote that they evinced “a fine education, superior scholarship, and much careful research.” The Philadelphia Christian Recorder found in Rock’s oratory “no bluster, no empty rant and beating of the air, no mere clamoring after effect,” and “no hollow words of empty sound.” The paper added, “His voice, smooth, pleasant, mellifluous, is exactly adapted to his calm and graceful action, and to his elegant diction.”