The Vashon I never knew…but should have

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On May 4, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that the undeservedly little-known Pittsburgh African-American pioneer George Boyer Vashon be admitted to the state bar 132 years after his death. Pittsburghers deserve to know the details of this remarkable local son’s life and contributions.

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My own recollection of the name Vashon dates to more than 50 years ago and not in Pittsburgh but in my hometown of St. Louis. But I never heard or read his name in New York City, where I later grew up and where he took the bar, becoming the first Black licensed attorney in New York State. Nor did I come across his name or account of his life in Syracuse, where I have lived full-time and part-time for 33 years and where Vashon first practiced law.

It was not until 2008, as the University of Pittsburgh prepared the “Free at Last?” exhibition about slavery in 18th and 19th century Pittsburgh, that the story of the magnificent Vashons was revealed to me. The Vashons, George and father John, were featured in the exhibition.

In the early 19th century, mulatto barber and abolitionist John Vashon operated the elegant Vashon City Baths in Downtown Pittsburgh, was well-to-do, and convinced then-Western University of Pennsylvania (today’s Pitt) Chancellor Robert Bruce to become active in the anti-slavery movement.

John sent son George off to Oberlin College, where he became its first Black graduate in 1844, delivered a valedictory address, and remained to earn a master’s degree five years later.

Upon his return to Pittsburgh, George Vashon was one of the most educated men in western Pennsylvania, enhancing his learning by studying law with the high-profile lawyer and judge Walter Forward, who would later become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. But race won the day, and, because of it, George Vashon would not in the 1840s—or ever—be permitted to practice law in Pennsylvania. The 1838 state constitution had earlier declared that Black men “had no political existence and could not be admitted to law practice” in the state, according to the 2008-09 Pitt/Heinz History Center “Free at Last?” slavery exhibition.

When he instead passed the bar in New York State, George Vashon, as the state’s first Black attorney, opened a law office in what is today the oldest building in downtown Syracuse. It was during his time in Syracuse that Vashon’s famous epic poem “Vincent Ogé” was penned in 1853. During a two-year stint as a professor and college president in the Republic of Haiti, Vashon was almost certainly inspired to write his jarring poem about the successful mulatto and slave revolt in the colony that triumphed over Napoleon Bonaparte.

But after teaching at New York Central College near Syracuse in McGrawville (today’s McGraw)—and complaining about its discrimination against Black teachers—Vashon returned to Pittsburgh and served as president of Avery College for Black youths, located on what is now the North Side; corresponded with the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; and wrote against slavery.

Ever on the move, Vashon then relocated after the Civil War to Washington, D.C., where he made more history. He practiced law before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Freedmen’s Bureau (but still could not practice in Pennsylvania), was the first Black lawyer in Washington, the first Black professor at Howard University, a founder of its law school, and later its dean.

George Vashon’s death made his tenure at Alcorn University in Mississippi—where he taught ancient and modern languages and mathematics—his final stop after his time in Washington. His widow, Susan, moved to St. Louis five years later, in 1882.

There, the Vashons’ son John, named for his prominent Pittsburgh grandfather, built his career as a teacher and school principal over a 34-year period of service. One of two Jim Crow segregated high schools for Blacks in the St. Louis of my boyhood was Vashon High School, named to honor George Boyer Vashon and his son, who had been the school’s principal when it was an elementary school; it is still a St. Louis public high school.

Before 2008, I did not know the story of this important 19th century figure in American legal, civil rights, education, and literary history, even though his journey and that of his offspring covered some of the same paths I did in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Syracuse. I am glad I do now.

(Robert Hill is vice chancellor for public affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.)

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