George Vashon Law Office
Dana Block, 135-139 East Water Street
Syracuse, New York
In 1851, George Vashon, first African American lawyer in New York State, classics scholar, and first African American professor at Howard University, had his offices here in the Dana Block, corner of Warren and Water Streets. Peter Lilly, European American blacksmith and tinsmith who took the shackles off Jerry Henry, also worked here in 1851. This site represents the success of African American professionals and the high visibility of both African Americans and abolitionists in the City of Syracuse.
George B. Vashon, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1824, was raised in an abolitionist household. His father, John B. Vashon, was a veteran of the War of 1812, a barber, an early supporter of William Lloyd Garrison, and an underground railroad activist.
In 1838, George Vashon became secretary of the first African American Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society in the U.S. Three years later, he went to Oberlin College, the first college in the country to admit African Americans and European Americans equally. Graduating from Oberlin in 1844, he attempted to practice law in Pittsburgh, only to be denied admission to the bar because of his color. In 1847, the New York Tribune reprinted an article from the Pittsburgh Democrat recounting the story:
This gentleman graduated at Oberlin Collegiate Institute some three years since, with much honor. He is the son of a very highly respectable colored man of Pittsburgh. He is a very good linguist—familiar with many of the ancient as well as modern languages. He has natural talents of a high order, and his moral character is unimpeachable. When at Oberlin we remember hearing him deliver an address full of burning eloquence and one which made a deep and lasting impression upon us and upon the audience.
After leaving college he studied law in the office of the Hon. Walter Forward, and when duly qualified, applied for admission to practice, but was refused. Why? Not because he was not every way qualified, but for the want of a change in color of his skin. If God had painted him white he would have been admitted.
There are many who sneer at colored people because they are so ignorant; at the same time, they take away from them the keys of knowledge, and shut up every avenue to advancement. The colored people have rights; why not have learned men of their own kindred to vindicate them? We first degrade them, then taunt them with their degradation, and then bind them with fetters that they never may rise.
(New York Tribune, March 18, 1847)
George Vashon was admitted to the bar in New York State in 1847.
Vashon received an M.A. from Oberlin in 1849. At some point, he taught school in Haiti. By 1851, he was living in Syracuse. The city directory for that year noted he had his law office upstairs in the Dana Block at 29 East Water Street, at the corner of Warren. A note in the Syracuse Standard recorded his address as the Empire Block, adjoing the Supreme Court Room. (January 15, 1851) Two years later, he had moved his law offices to 8 Hanover Arcade, and he boarded at 138 Lodi Street.
While he lived in Syracuse, George Vashon was an active abolitionist. In 1851, he lectured in Rev. Loguen’s church. The Syracuse Standard noted that “Mr. Vashon has just enough of African blood to be discernible. He is a Scholar, Lawyer and Orator, of accomplished person and education, and high endowments. Go and hear him.” (Standard, April 10, 1851)
Vashon signed at least one abolitionist petition to Congress, and in 1853, he took an active role in drafting resolutions for a meeting of Syracuse African American residents who protested the formation of a local colonization society. “Resolved,” read one, “That we are opposed to emigration in large bodies to any country,--whether it be to Liberia, Canada, the West Indies, or elsewhere; that we believe ourright to remain in this country, to be as indisputable as that of our white fellow citizens; and that our own well-being as well as that of our enslaved brethren at the South, require us to look forward to this land as the place of our burial, as it has been that of our birth.”
(Standard, March 21, 1853)
He took the negative in a debate before the Young Men’s Lyceum of the Franklin Institute on the question of whether the “peasantry of Great Britain and Ireland are in a more degraded condition than the Slaves at the South.” (Standard, March 7, 1853) He went with Loguen as a delegate to the Colored People’s Convention in Rochester. (Standard, July 9, 1853) Even after he moved from Syracuse, he continued to be active in this convention, attending a state meeting here in 1864, where he was elected Correspond Secretary of the newly formed National Equal Rights League. (Journal, October 7, 1864)
In 1855, he ran for New York State attorney general on the Liberty Party ticket, the first African American to run for statewide office in New York. Standard, September 14, 1855)
Vashon left Syracuse about 1853 to work as a teacher and lecturer. From 1855-58, he taught Latin at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York, an abolitionist college that admitted both blacks and white, men and women. A school in St. Louis, Missouri, was named after George B. Vashon and his son, John Vashon, in honor of their work as educators.
After the Civil War, Vashon practiced law in Washington, D.C. and was a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also worked with the Freedman’s Bureau, taught at Howard University, and became a clerk in the Treasury Department.
He died in Mississippi in 1878, three years after being admitted to the bar in that state.
Peter Lilly, a blacksmith and tinsmith, lived on Irving Street, near the home of Susan and Rachel Watkins, the first place that William “Jerry” Henry was taken after his rescue from the police station on Clinton Square. This family, a mother and two teenaged girls, called Peter Lilly to remove the shackles from Jerry Henry.
City directories list Lilly as working at 29 Water Street, probably in a hardware store on the first floor, just below George Vashon’s law office. In 1855, Murphy and McCarthy owned a hardware store at this location. (Standard, June 14, 1855) Further west, Isaac Kahn owned a leather shop. (Courier, April 12, 1858)
The Dana Block consists of five buildings constructed in 1834 and designed to have access both to East Water Street on the south and the Erie Canal on the north. Forming part of the nineteenth century business block fronting Hanover Square, they are the oldest buildings still standing in downtown Syracuse. In 1855, this whole block was renovated. A fourth story was added in 1861. (Standard, June 25, 1855; Hardin, 27)
Case, Dick. “Tracing history of black lawyer.” Post-Standard, October 2, 1999.
Clark, Sylvester, “Early Black Syracusans,” 102-03.
Hanchett, Catherine M. “George Boyer Vashon, 1825-1878: Black Educator, Poet,
Fighter for Equal Rights.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 68:4 (October 1985), 333-349.
Hardin, Evamaria. Syracuse Landmarks. Syracuse, 1993.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York, 1969.
Newspaper articles and correspondence from Vashon vile, OHA.
Thornell, Paul N.D. “George B. Vashon: An Historic Fight for Black Equality.”
Talk sponsored by the Urban League and the OHA, October 2, 1999.
Vashon is a nationally-important figure whose career has been relatively well-documented. While in Syracuse, he seems to have moved his office at least three times and boarded in at least two different places. It is possible that further research in anti-slavery or other newspapers, including a search of The North Star and the Liberator, both indexed, might reveal more about his local career.
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