By: Lisanne L. Mikula, Esquire
Upon admission to the Bar, each lawyer in Pennsylvania is assigned a unique identification number. The holder of Pennsylvania Attorney Identification No. 1 is George Boyer Vashon—who received this honor upon his admission to the Pennsylvania Bar on May 4, 2010—more than 160 years after his application for admission to the Bar had been denied simply because he was African-American.
Vashon was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1824. George’s father, John Bathan Vashon, was a businessman, an abolitionist, and a well-respected leader in Pittsburgh’s African-American community. Inspired by his father’s example, Vashon took up the abolitionist cause at an early age, serving as secretary of the Pittsburgh Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society, an organization which Vashon co-founded when he was just 14 years old.
At age 16, Vashon enrolled in Oberlin College, where he was a dedicated scholar and linguist who studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit. Vashon was the first African-American to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin—graduating as class Valedictorian—and he continued to pursue his education at Oberlin after graduation, ultimately earning his Master’s degree.
After completing his formal studies, Vashon returned to Pittsburgh where he studied law for two years under Walter Forward, then a Judge of the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, who later became Secretary of the Treasury under President John Tyler. Despite his scholarly achievements and legal acumen, in 1847, Vashon was denied the opportunity to sit for the Pennsylvania Bar examination. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1838 extended voting rights to only “every white freeman.” Since Vashon could not vote, the Bar Association claimed to reason, he could not be an attorney.
Undeterred, Vashon applied to sit for the bar examination in New York and became that state’s first African-American lawyer. Vashon then accepted a position in Haiti at the College Faustin, where he taught for two years before returning to the United States in 1850 and opening a law practice in Syracuse, N.Y. While in Syracuse, he authored his epic poem, Vincent Ogé, commemorating the Haitian revolution.
After practicing law for several years while also serving as a college professor in New York, Vashon returned to Pennsylvania to continue his professional path as an educator and became principal of the then-named “colored” public schools in the then-segregated Pittsburgh school district. Despite attaining the office of president of Avery College in 1863, Vashon remained intent on practicing law. Nearly 20 years after the denial of his first application for admission to the Pennsylvania Bar, Vashon appealed to the Allegheny County Bar for reconsideration of his admission application, citing to his admission to the Bar of New York and his successful law practice there. Vashon’s application to the Pennsylvania Bar—again—was denied on the basis of his race.
Having unsuccessfully tried to gain bar admission in Pennsylvania, in 1867, Vashon relocated to Washington, D.C., where he was admitted to practice law as an attorney. Vashon appeared before the United States Supreme Court as Solicitor for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established to assist freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. During this same period, Vashon became Howard University’s first African-American professor.
In 1873, Vashon made another professional move, accepting a position as first class clerk in the Office of the Second Auditor of the Treasury and accepting a professorship of ancient and modern languages at Alcorn University in Rodney, Mississippi.
Vashon died during a yellow fever epidemic in the fall of 1878, and he is buried in an unmarked grave on Alcorn University’s campus.
One hundred thirty-two years after his death, Vashon was finally granted the recognition he had earned and deserved early in his lifetime—admission to the Pennsylvania Bar.
We feel proud to consider George Boyer Vashon, Esquire our first colleague in law.
The attorneys at the Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP are experienced and available to help you. Contact Lisanne L. Mikula Esquire at 610-565-5700, or send her an e-mail at [email protected]