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.
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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.