African Americans In History: George Vashon Biography

A profile of George Vashon, the first African American graduate from Oberlin College, professor at predominantly White New York Central College and president of Avery College.

George Boyer Vashon was born on July 25, 1824 in Pennsylvania. George was the son of an abolitionist, John Baton Vashon, who was instrumental in establishing the first school for blacks in Pittsburgh. George attended his father's private school until 1837, at which time he attended public school.

Early in his life, George displayed an aptitude for languages. He was able to speak Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Persian, and was well versed in Greek and Latin. At age 16, George had exhausted all of the opportunities for schooling available to him in Pittsburgh. In 1840, he enrolled in Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Ohio. While at Oberlin, George participated in the 1842 celebration of the West Indies Emancipation. He was a member of one of Oberlin's most prestigious men's literary societies, the Union Society. Some of his most outstanding work, while at Oberlin, was his teaching at a school in Chillicothe, Ohio.

On August 28, 1844, George Vashon became the first black graduate from Oberlin College, receiving the school's Bachelor of Arts degree. Vashon graduated with valedictory honors, which permitted him to deliver the commencement address, the title of which was "Liberty of Mind." In his speech, Vashon asserted that "genius, talent, and learning are not withheld by our common Father" from people of color. In 1849, Vashon was awarded a master of arts degree in recognition of his scholarly pursuits and accomplishments.

After graduation, Vashon, like his abolitionist father, wanted to play a central role in advancing the cause of black people. He felt that this could be done by pursuing a career in law. He studied law under Walter Forward, a judge and prominent figure in Pennsylvania politics. After two years of reading law, Vashon applied for admission to the Allegheny County bar. His application was rejected because of his race. In 1838, a revision of Pennsylvania's constitution restricted the franchise to white men. His rejected was a crushing blow; it dashed his hopes of fighting for the rights of blacks through the law. For a time, he thought of Haitian emigration as a means of developing his potential. Before embarking to Haiti, Vashon left Pennsylvania and went to New York to take the bar examination, which he successfully completed on January 10, 1848, thus becoming the first black to become a lawyer in New York.

In 1849, Vashon moved to Port-au-Prince Haiti, where he served as a professor of Latin, Greek and English. He also served as a correspondent to Frederick Douglass's newspaper, "The North Star." In 1851, he moved to Syracuse, New York and joined the faculty of the New York Central College in McGrawville. In the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Vashon became involved in the Underground Railroad and state and national conventions, which brought blacks together to discuss critical issues confronting the free black communities and the means of ending the system of slavery. In 1857, Vashon married Susan Paul Smith, the granddaughter of the Rev. Thomas Paul, Sr. of Boston. The couple had seven children.

In 1863, Vashon became the second black president of Avery College in Pittsburgh.

After the Civil War, Vashon worked in the Solicitor's Office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Washington, D.C. He was appointed to this position by the Bureau's head, General O.O. Howard, the founder of Howard University. Vashon became Howard University's first professor and was instrumental in establishing its law school. When Vashon left Howard, he became a professor of Mathematics and Ancient and Modern Languages at Alcorn College in Rodney, Mississippi. He was considered a good teacher by his students and was well respected by his colleagues.

When the yellow fever epidemic swept Alcorn's campus in the Fall of 1878, Vashon was one of its victims. He died on October 5 1878 and is buried on the college's campus. George Vashon made significant contributions to the struggle for emancipation and education of African Americans, a legacy that lives until today.

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