Meet George Boyer Vashon, the first black lawyer in New York and graduate of Oberlin College before slavery was abolished

Stephen Nartey February 20, 2023
George Boyer Vashon/Photo credit: Wikipedia

Black educator and abolitionist, George Boyer Vashon, gained recognition in his lifetime as a man of many firsts. Born July 25 1984 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to his mother, Anne Vashon, and his father, entrepreneur and abolitionist, John baton Vashon, George’s life unfolded into a fascinating and inspiring story of a man who attained unprecedented feats in an era of vibrant racial segregation and social injustice.   

According to the African American Registry, George began his early education in the first black school established by his father in Pittsburgh, and later attended a public school, where he showed profound abilities in languages. By the age of 16, he could speak five foreign languages including Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. He proceeded to further his education at Oberlin College Institute in Ohio, where he became an active member of Oberlin’s respected men’s literary societies – the Union Society, and also demonstrated his teaching skills as a teacher at a local school.

Proving hard work and dedication always pave the way for success, George made history in 1844 when he became the first black graduate at Oberlin College, graduating as the valedictorian, and later graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1849. Burning with a passion to impact lives as an influential black community leader like his father, George studied law under Walter Forward, a judge and influential personality in Pennsylvania politics, and later aimed for the bar at Allegheny County.

Though his application was turned down because of his skin color, he surmounted the institutional and racial barriers of his day by passing the New York bar examination on January 10 1848; making history as the first black graduate before slavery was abolished, and the first black lawyer in New York.

He relocated to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1849, where he became a professor of Latin, Greek, and English, and also corresponded for the abolitionist, Fredrick Douglass’s newspaper, the north star. He then joined the faculty of the New York Central College, McGrawville, in 1851 when he moved to Syracuse, New York. There, he took interest in the Underground Railroad Network as well as national conventions. He was instrumental in the national discourse that affected the black community and initiatives directed toward outlawing slavery.

Years later, he was appointed the second black president of Avery College, Pittsburgh, in 1863, and further employed as a lawyer at the office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Washington, D.C. That was not the only belt of success he earned. He became Howard University’s first professor and helped to establish its law school. When he resigned from his role at Howard University, he rose to become a professor of mathematics, and ancient and modern languages at Alcon College in Rodney, Mississippi.

George married Susan Paul Smith, the granddaughter of the Rev. Thomas Paul, Sr. of Boston in 1857, and had seven children. He passed away on October 5 1878, when he contracted yellow fever during an epidemic at Alcon’s campus in the fall of 1878.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: February 20, 2023


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