The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will try to right a 160-year-old wrong Wednesday morning when it admits George Vashon to the bar posthumously. After graduating from Oberlin College and then reading law with a prominent member of the Pittsburgh legal community, African American George Vashon applied in 1847 to be admitted to the Allegheny County bar. Longtime Pittsburgh Lawyer Wendell Freeland says that was before there was a standard test to become a member of the bar. Freeland says the lawyer under whom Vashon studied supported his application to the bar but Vashon was denied access because the judges decided that since freed slaves did not have the right to vote they could not be admitted to the bar. Vashon then left for New York where he was admitted to the bar. After the civil war, Vashon returned to Pittsburgh and in 1868 he again applied and was denied admission to the Allegheny County bar. Freeland notes that Vashon was admitted to the bar of the US Supreme Court just a few months later. “It shows how far behind Pennsylvania was at the time,” says Freeland.
After learning of Vashon’s story, Freeland asked the Pennsylvania Board of Law examiners to grant Vashon admission to the bar posthumously. The Board denied the request in 2007 saying it might set a president. Freeland then took his case directly to the PA Supreme Court and the fruits of his labor will be seen Wednesday morning when Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille will sign and present a Certificate of Admission on
behalf of the Court to the Vashon family, confirming Mr. Vashon's credentials, competency and good character to practice law in Pennsylvania. Freeland says he was trying to right a wrong. “This will be a great moment for Western Pennsylvania and all of Pennsylvania,” says Freeland. Freeland says he feels the court is in a unique position to hand out this type of justice. He says he knows of no others that were treated in the same manner as Vashon but he suspects there were others who have been swallowed up by history. Freeland says it is likely that there are similar stories in other states. In a written statement Chief Justice Castille says, “There is no question that denying George Vashon’s admission to the Bar in 1847 and again in 1868 was blatantly discriminatory. By granting this petition, our Court recognizes, and is sensitive to the fact, that those prior practices in the Commonwealth’s earlier history had a real effect on real people.”
The Supreme Court’s May 4th order admitted Vashon to the Pennsylvania Bar, stating that, “George B. Vashon possessed the necessary credentials, competency, and good character to practice law in Pennsylvania in 1847 based upon his bachelor and masters degrees from Oberlin College, his mentorship with the Honorable Walter Forward of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and his subsequent admissions to practice law in the State of New York and before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
A small group of Vashon’s decedents are to be in the courtroom and the judge will allow Freeland to introduce them. Freeland says he thinks the formality of the court will break down a bit at that time and he expects it will become a celebratory event.