The phrase “Black is Beautiful” has long been associated with the civil rights and Black power movements but it has roots that reach even further back. John Stewart Rock, one of the America’s first Black doctors and lawyers, is said to have coined the phrase in one of his speeches as an abolitionist.
Rock was born October 13, 1825 in Salem, N.J. to free parents. School was a luxury for both whites and Blacks, but the Rock family rallied around their son, helping him get the education he needed to become a teacher at age 19. But Rock had greater plans and began studying medicine under the guidance of two white doctors.
Medical school acceptance proved to be a challenge due to his race, but the American Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania allowed him to study there. After graduating in 1852, Rock moved to Boston to open a practice and teach night school for African-Americans. An abolitionist group, Vigilance Committee, hired Rock to treat escaped slaves and serve as their educator.
The abolitionist movement produced many fine speakers and Rock was of that longstanding tradition. Rock traveled across New England as part of the National Equal Rights League that counted Frederick Douglass as a member. In 1855, Rock joined an effort in Boston to desegregate public schools. In his speeches and writings, Rock did speak of the “inherent beauty” of Black people and was a strong proponent of Black self-improvement and empowerment.
In the late 1850’s, Rock’s health began to fade and he sailed to France to get advanced care. He was advised to retire from speaking and travel, and although he cut back his medical practice and dental practice, he studied law.
In 1861, Rock becoming one of the first Black lawyers admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. In 1865, as the first Black lawyer admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court.
Rock fell ill with the common cold in 1866 after several health setbacks and died in December at the age of 41. On Rock’s tombstone, the record of his admittance to the Supreme Court is noted.
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