PITTSBURGH – As a scholar, poet and abolitionist, George B. Vashon broke barriers in the 1800s: he was the first Black to graduate from Oberlin College, the first Black lawyer in New York state and the first Black professor at Howard University.
But in his home state of Pennsylvania, where Vashon grew up and studied law, he was twice rejected from practicing law because he was Black.
On Tuesday, more than 160 years after Vashon applied to be admitted to the Allegheny County bar, the state Supreme Court ordered that he be posthumously admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania. Vashon’s relatives and a Pittsburgh attorney who heard about Vashon’s story had asked the court earlier this year to do just that.
“I think it’s very important not just as a family matter, it goes far beyond family,” said Nolan N. Atkinson Jr., Vashon’s great grandson and a lawyer in Philadelphia. “It’s very important for all lawyers who are entering this profession to know that there were significant achievements made by African-Americans in the 19th century.”
Vashon was born in Carlisle in 1824, and his family later moved to Pittsburgh, where he grew up. At 16, he was admitted to Oberlin College and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1844.
He came back to Pittsburgh and studied law under a judge, which was customary at the time. (That judge, Walter Forward, later became the U.S. Treasury secretary). But when Vashon sought admission to practice law in Allegheny County in 1847, he was rejected because of his “Negro descent.”
After, he moved to New York where he became the state’s first Black lawyer and opened a practice in Syracuse.
Paul Thornell, Vashon’s great-great grandson, chronicled the elder’s life in a paper he prepared and had published while a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Thornell said his maternal grandmother spoke of Vashon often, passing down stories of his life to the rest of the family.
Among his many accomplishments, Vashon was also a teacher, poet and abolitionist who ran in the same circles as Frederick Douglass, Thornell said.
But even though he was admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867, he was again denied admittance by the Allegheny Bar the next year.
“As much of an accomplishment we can celebrate today, the unfortunate part of his life is that it did reflect the discrimination of the day,” Thornell said.
Pittsburgh attorney Wendell Freeland read about Vashon’s life in the Pennsylvania Lawyer magazine a few years ago. As a Black man who has been practicing law in Pennsylvania since 1951, Freeland said the article struck him.
“It interested me and I called (the author) and found out more about it, including the names of some of Vashon’s heirs, and I said we should do something about this,” Freeland said.
In January, Freeland and lawyer Leslie Carter filed a petition to the state’s highest court on behalf of the family asking Pennsylvania to recognize that Vashon was qualified to be admitted to the bar. Thornell’s paper about Vashon was included as an exhibit.
The court agreed, and also ordered that Vashon be honored during a future public court session.
Dr. Larry Glasco, a University of Pittsburgh professor who teaches a class about the city’s Black history, said Vashon’s rejection was out of character for the city, which was at the time more racially progressive than other cities like Philadelphia or New York.
“There was an anti-slavery sentiment here which one would have thought would have let him be admitted, so I just don’t know what was going on there,” Glasco said.
Glasco said the court’s decision is “a sign that America really is coming to terms with a lot of things that it should have done.”
“It’s never too late to right a wrong and to affirm that one has made a mistake in the past,” he said.