George B. Vashon


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(1824–1878), essayist and poet.

George Boyer Vashon was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin College and the first to become a lawyer in New York State. Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Vashon attended school in Pittsburgh and served there as secretary of the first Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society in the nation (1838). He earned a BA from Oberlin (1844) and studied law in Pittsburgh but was denied admittance to the bar because of his race. Embarking on a thirty-month exile in Haiti, Vashon stopped in New York, where he was admitted to the bar in 1848. He taught at College Faustin in Port-au-Prince; then from 1850 to 1854 he practiced law in Syracuse, New York, and for the next three years was professor of belles lettres and mathematics at New York Central College in McGrawville. Returning to Pittsburgh, Vashon married Susan Paul Smith (1857), with whom he had seven children. He was a principal and teacher in Pittsburgh schools until 1867 and thereafter held government posts in Washington, D.C., worked for race advancement with the Colored Men of America, and published learned essays, poems, and letters in periodicals. It is commonly thought that he died of yellow fever in Mississippi.

“Vincent Ogé” (1854), Vashon's 391-line epic on the Haitian insurrection (1790–1791), is a signal imaginative achievement in African American poetry of the nineteenth century. The slaves' revolt becomes not only a metaphor for universal racial conflict and mankind's resistance to tyranny, but also a symbol of a world in perpetual chaotic motion. Within a finely structured, dramatic whole Vashon sustains an ambience of instability with image patterns of flickering light, storms, blood, and warfare, and by shifts in diction, in metrical and stanzaic form, voices, and scenes. Measured by the artistry of “Vincent Ogé” and his essays, his labors for racial justice, and his academic achievements, Vashon was a man of extraordinary courage and talent.

[George B. Vashon obituary notice], Oberlin Review, 20 Nov. 1878 (rpt. from People's Advocate, n.d.).Joan R. Sherman, Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed., 1989.

Joan R. Sherman

Subjects: United States History — Literature.

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