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George Boyer Vashon, attorney, scholar, essayist and poet, made noteworthy contributions to the fight for emancipation and education of blacks. He was born on July 25, 1824, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the third child and only son of an abolitionist, John Bethune Vashon. At the age of 16, Vashon enrolled in Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Ohio. On August 28, 1844, Vashon earned his Bachelor of Arts degree with valedictory honors, becoming the college’s first black graduate. Five years later, Vashon was awarded a Master of Arts degree in recognition of his scholarly pursuits and accomplishments.
After returning to Pittsburgh, he studied law under Judge Walter Forward, a prominent figure in Pennsylvania politics. After two years of reading law, Vashon applied for admission to the Allegheny County bar. His application was denied on the grounds that colored people were not citizens. This inequitable act led to Vashon’s decision to emigrate to Haiti. Before leaving the United States, Vashon went to New York to take the bar examination, which he successfully completed on January 10, 1848, thus becoming the first black lawyer in New York.
In 1849, Vashon moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he spent thirty months teaching Latin, Greek, and English. In the summer of 1850 he moved to Syracuse, New York to practice law. He remained there four years during which he wrote his remarkable epic poem “Vincent Oge.” From 1854 to 1857 he was professor of belles-lettres and mathematics at New York Central College in McGrawville. Vashon was the third African American to hold a teaching post in a college or university. His predecessors were Charles L. Reason and William G. Allen who both taught at New York Central College. In 1857, Vashon married Susan Paul Smith and the couple had seven children.
From 1858-1863 Vashon was a teacher and principal in Pittsburgh before becoming the second black president of Avery College, Pittsburgh from 1864-1867. According to the Oberlin Review, in 1867 Vashon was a solicitor for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., and in 1869 represented Rhode Island at the national convention of Colored Men of America, later joining its national executive committee.
From 1867 to 1868, Vashon taught at Howard University, becoming the university’s first black professor. He was also instrumental in establishing the Howard University Law School. After leaving Howard he taught mathematics and ancient and modern languages at Alcorn University in Mississippi from 1874 to 1878. Vashon fell victim to the yellow fever epidemic on October 5, 1878 and was buried on the Alcorn University campus.
Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982); Benjamin Griffith Brawley, Early Negro American Writers (Salem: Ayer Publishing, 1968); Paul N. D. Thornell, “The Absent Ones and the Providers: A Biography of the Vashons,” Journal of Negro History, 83:4 (1998).
University of Washington, Seattle