A pioneer leader and orator in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, Rock was one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree. In addition, he was the first black person to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. One of America’s first black physicians and lawyers and a dedicated advocate of civil rights and self improvement, he made history as the first Black man to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rock was born in Salem County, New Jersey, on October 13, 1825. Living in a slave-free state but with modest means, his parents rejected the common but often necessary practice of putting black children to work instead of attending school. They continued to support their son’s diligent pursuit of education through the age of 18, and Rock returned the favor by demonstrating a deep love of learning and a brilliant intellect.
At age 19, proficient in Greek and Latin, Rock took a position as a teacher at a black public grammar school in the town of Salem. But he had greater things in mind: while teaching there during the years 1844–1848, he apprenticed himself to two white doctors, Quinton Gibbon and Jacob Sharpe, immersing himself in their libraries each day after his teaching duties. By 1848, Rock was exceptionally well versed in medicine, and sought but was refused entrance to medical school that year. Demonstrating the resolve that would characterize his entire life, he began an intense study of dentistry, again on his own. Obtaining a dentistry certificate, he opened a private practice in Philadelphia in 1850. The practice was immediately successful, but Rock had not given up on becoming a physician. He gained admission to Philadelphia’s American Medical College and received his M.D. degree at the age of 26 in 1852.
Rock made his mark in Philadelphia as a medical man of brilliance, and as a strong, eloquent advocate for African Americans. He married Philadelphia native Catherine Bowers in 1852, and the following year, having decided the northern, liberal environment in Massachusetts would be better suited to them, the couple moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill. There, Rock opened another successful practice in dentistry and medicine, and became increasingly involved in black advocacy. He served first as a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, giving free medical services to fugitive slaves, and then in 1855, as a delegate to the Colored National Convention in Philadelphia. In 1856, he was recorded as asking the Massachusetts legislature to delete the word “colored” from state documents.