George Boyer Vashon was a 19th century American poet, scholar, lawyer and fervent abolitionist. He had a passion for the education and emancipation of young African-Americans and taught classes for them at night schools in Washington DC while living briefly in that city during the 1870s.
He was born on the 25th July 1824 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His father was an abolitionist so it is clear where George got his inspiration from. He received a good education, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree with valedictory honours from the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Ohio. He was 20 years old at this point and it is notable that he was the first black graduate at that college. He continued to study and earned a Masters’ five years later.
He moved closer to home where his ambitions to become a lawyer in Pittsburgh were, at first, thwarted by the authorities on the spurious grounds that “coloured people were not citizens”. He had studied under a prominent Judge but his application to the Allegheny County bar was refused and this prompted Vashon to emigrate to Haiti. Before going though he was determined to pass his bar examinations and he did so in New York, finally departing for Port-au-Prince in 1849. He spent his time in Haiti writing and teaching English, Latin and Greek and then went back to New York where he became a practicing lawyer in the Syracuse district of the city.
All this time he had been an avid writer of poetry and essays on black issues and it was during his stay in Syracuse that he penned his most famous piece of verse, an epic poem called Vincent Ogé. This long poem, written without verse interruptions, was a plaintive cry on behalf of black people who had suffered, and were still suffering, from racial oppression and physical violence. Here are the opening lines to this powerful piece of writing:
Vashon’s pioneering steps towards black equality continued with a three-year spell as professor of belles-lettres and mathematics at New York Central College, McGrawville. Having become the first in other fields, he was now only the third black man to teach in any university or college in America. He followed two others who had taught at the same establishment – Charles L. Reason and William G. Allen. He continued in this career in Pittsburgh where he also married his wife Susan who bore him seven children. He rose from teacher to principal and then became president of Avery College between the years 1864-67.
Vashon continued to take great strides in education and as a lawyer, representing clients from the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. He also entered the political arena when representing Rhode Island at the national convention of Coloured Men of America. Between 1874-78 he taught mathematics and languages at the at Alcorn University in Mississippi but, tragically, fell victim to a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 and was unable to recover his health.
George Boyer Vashon died on the 5th October 1878 at the age of 54 and his body was buried on the Alcorn University campus. Besides his relatively small contribution to American literature he is chiefly remembered for his efforts and achievements on behalf of fellow black American citizens. His name lives on in many quarters, an example being the Vashon High School in St. Louis, Missouri.