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

Anthony W. Neal | 12/6/2013, 6 a.m.
Dr. John S. Rock, a preeminent mid-19th century black abolitionist, dentist, doctor and lawyer, was one of Boston’s most eloquent ...
Dr. John S. Rock

So it came as no surprise that he instantly became a sought-after public speaker in Boston. On more than one occasion, Rock was invited to speak on the anniversary of the death of Crispus Attucks, a black man, considered by many as the first martyr of the American Revolution.

He gave a speech at Faneuil Hall on March 5, 1858 at the Crispus Attucks Commemorative Festival, organized by abolitionist William Cooper Nell to protest the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott vs. Sandford (1857). Rock defended black men against malicious attacks on their reputation. Arguing that they were courageous, he cited the history of the bloody battles for freedom in Haiti, in which blacks “whipped the French” and gained their independence.

Rock embodied black pride and he loved his people. He told the gathering at Faneuil Hall, “I would have you understand, that not only do I love my race, but am pleased with my color, and while many colored persons may feel degraded by being called Negroes, and wish to be classed among other races more favored, I shall feel it my duty, my pleasure and my pride, to concentrate my feeble efforts in elevating to a fair position a race to which I am especially identified by feelings and by blood.” Displaying a black nationalistic sentiment, the doctor declared that “no man shall cause me to turn my back on my race. With it I will sink or swim.”

The prejudice that some whites had against Rock’s color gave him “no pain,” for he said, “If any man does not fancy my color, that is his business, and I shall not meddle with it. I shall give myself no trouble because he lacks good taste.”

Rock was a crusader for equal rights. At the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on Jan. 27, 1860, he told the attendees, “I belong to that class of fanatics who believes that every man has the same inalienable rights; that any distinction found upon color is unjust; and that every man should be judged by his merits.” He was concerned about prejudice in the North, which robbed the black man of his inalienable rights, closed to him every avenue of wealth and position, and refused him even the common facilities for gaining an honest livelihood, thereby forcing him to remain poor and degraded, simply because of his color.

Less than six weeks after that speech, on March 5, 1860, at the 90th anniversary commemoration of death of Crispus Attucks, Rock again condemned Northern prejudice, believing that it deprived capable black men of employment opportunities. He said, “The free schools are open to our children, and from them have come forth young men who have finished their studies elsewhere, who speak two or three languages, and are capable of filling any post of profit and honor.” But there was “no field for these men,” he said, owing to “the embittered prejudices” of whites.

Rock may have delivered that lecture on the anniversary of the death of Attucks; however, having failed to see how black people actually benefited from his demise, he was not yet ready to idolize the martyr. The physician confessed to having a strong attachment to his native country and desiring to see it prosperous and happy, but as he saw it, America had not lived up to the promise of its revolution. Whites, he said, may have gained a little liberty, but to blacks American liberty was just “a name without meaning — a shadow without substance,” which retained “not even so much as the ghost of the original.”