George Boyer Vashon – August 28th in African American History

On August 28, 1844, George Boyer Vashon graduated from Oberlin College. This was historically significant, because he was the first black student ever to graduate from Oberlin. He received valedictorian honors.

George Boyer Vashon was born on July 25, 1824 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was the only son and youngest child of his parents, John Bathan and Anne Vashon. John Bathan Vashon was the son of a white man and a woman who was of mixed race. He was a prominent abolitionist who helped establish a school for black children in his community which had been deprived of a public education.

George Vashon attended this school and later went on to do so well in public school that his teacher asked him to help teach other students. He continued to be ambitious and, in 1838, became secretary of the first Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society in the United States.

Two years later, when he was just 16, his father spent a great deal of his fortune to enroll his son in Oberlin College. He was very active in college life and recognized as one of the finest minds in his class. He taught classes while attending college and was recognized by his students as an exceptional scholar and teacher. He was also recognized as a powerful orator.

Graduating from Oberlin was only the first step in Vashon’s long struggle for equality. He went on to study law under Judge Walter Forward – the 15th United States Secretary of the Treasury. Soon after, Frederick Douglass’ paper described George Vashon as one of the most “admirable, intelligent and gentlemanly” men its editors had met.

Yet, in spite of his character, experience and education, Vashon met with opposition when he applied for admission to the Bar in Pennsylvania. According to Frederick Douglass’ paper, “A majority of the committee refused to examine him, because his complexion was a shade darker than their own.”

This rejection caused Vashon to move to Haiti – but he did not give up on his fight to become a lawyer. He passed his bar examination in New York before his trip and became the first black Lawyer in the state. He spent a year in Haiti, before returning to New York.

In New York, he practiced law, paving the way for future black attorneys. He also helped pave the way for black educators in New York, becoming professor of belles-lettres and mathematics at New York Central College. He would go on to become Avery College’s second black president and Howard University’s first black professor and dean. He also represented Rhode Island in the national convention of Colored Men of America.

After a life of breaking down barriers and improving education in America, Vashon contracted yellow fever and died on October 5, 1878. While he was never admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in his lifetime, 163 years later, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court admitted him, in order to correct “a historical injustice.”

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