Black lawyer rejected from Pa. bar in 1800s honored 

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—A lawyer rejected from practicing law in Pennsylvania in the 1800s because he was Black was posthumously admitted to the state’s bar Oct. 21.

The family of George Vashon accepted a Certificate of Admission during a ceremony before the state Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ronald Castille noted the “ancient practices” that led to Vashon’s rejection despite having been qualified to practice law in the state.

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ADMITTED TO BAR—Pittsburgh attorney Wendell Freeland, right, presents the Certificate of Admission to practice law awarded by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to the descendants of George B. Vashon in a ceremony at the courtroom in Pittsburgh, Oct. 20. Vashon’s great-great grandson Paul Thornell, left, holds his son, 7-year-old Nolan Thornel, as Freeland presents the document. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Vashon was the first Black person to graduate from Oberlin College in Ohio, the first Black lawyer in New York state and the first Black professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Pennsylvania and studied law in Pittsburgh but was twice rejected to practice law despite being admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867.

Pittsburgh attorney Wendell Freeland said he learned of the story from an article in the fall 2007 State Bar Association magazine. He wrote to then President Judge of the Supreme Court Ralph Cappy, who referred the matter to the Bar’s Board of examiners. While waiting for some action, He also spoke with Vashon’s descendents.

Freeland said he didn’t hear from the board until 2008, so he got in touch with Philadelphia attorney Nolan Atchison and filed the petition in January. They granted it in May.

“It’s significant in my opinion, because it is an indication that some of the wrongs of the past—though certainly not all—can be rectified if there is an entity capable and willing to do it,” said Freeland. “It’s encouraging in that respect.”

Paul Thonell, Vashon’s great-great grandson, chronicled Vashon’s life in a paper he prepared and had published while a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Vashon was also a teacher, poet and abolitionist who moved in the same circles as Frederick Douglass, Thornell said.

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