PITTSBURGH -- More than a century and a half after he was first denied admission to the Allegheny County Bar because of the color of his skin, George Boyer Vashon, an African-American legal scholar and abolitionist, will officially be admitted to the state bar by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a ceremony to be held on October 20 at 9 a.m. at the City-County Building in Pittsburgh.
In conjunction with that ceremony, national law firm Duane Morris LLP is hosting a reception on October 19 to recognize the life and career of Vashon, whose great-grandson Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., serves as the Duane Morris' Chief Diversity Officer. Judges and members of the Pittsburgh bar will be in attendance. The reception, co-sponsored by the Allegheny County Bar Association, will be held at the Rivers Club in Pittsburgh from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. It will feature notable memorabilia from Vashon's life—including photographs and letters from the 1800s—that belong to collector and educator Calvin Riley of St. Louis, which was where Vashon's family resided after his death. The press is invited to both events.
"We are deeply honored to be able at last to recognize the life and work of a learned Pennsylvania native whose accomplishments may have been ignored in his own lifetime, but which have had a profound effect on us today," said John Soroko, Duane Morris Chairman.
Atkinson and Pittsburgh attorney Wendell G. Freeland played a key role in finally winning official recognition from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for Vashon, who was twice rejected by the Allegheny County Bar, in 1847 and again in 1868, and who was later admitted to practice not only in New York, but also before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This official recognition both acknowledges Mr. Vashon's many accomplishments in law, scholarship, education and justice—often in the face of great resistance—and finally redresses an historical injustice," said Atkinson, a senior litigator with the firm. "While my great-grandfather could not enjoy this recognition in his own lifetime, at last we, today, can honor his learning and struggles, which have benefited so many people in the ensuing years."
During his lifetime, Vashon was active in the abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania. He was also a dedicated scholar and linguist who studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit. He was the first African-American to graduate from Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was class valedictorian. His father John Vashon was an abolitionist who established the first school for black students in Pittsburgh. Over the years, friends of the Vashon family included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as well as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
Atkinson was joined in submitting the application to the court by his nephew, Paul N.D. Thornell, a great-great-grandson of Vashon. Thornell's article, "The Absent Ones and the Providers: A Biography of the Vashons"—which appears in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Autumn 1998) at 284–301—was exhibit "A" of the filing.
About George Boyer Vashon
George Boyer Vashon was born in Carlisle, Pa., in 1824. His father was an abolitionist who was a well-respected leader in the black community and the abolitionist movement. As a teenager, Vashon co-founded the Pittsburgh anti-slavery society in 1838. He attended Oberlin College, where he was the first African-American to receive a bachelor's degree.
Vashon apprenticed for the law in Pittsburgh under Judge Walter Forward, who was later U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Because of his race, he was not allowed to sit for the Pennsylvania bar exam. Vashon moved to New York and became the first licensed African-American attorney in that state. He then taught in Haiti; practiced law in Syracuse, N.Y.; was a professor at New York Central College; and later returned to Pittsburgh, where he became a principal at African-American public schools. Vashon served as president of Avery College and moved to Washington, D.C., where he was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1867, he became the first black professor at Howard University. Vashon became a professor of ancient and modern languages at Alcorn University in 1873. He died in Mississippi in 1878 during a yellow-fever epidemic.
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