The Dana Building was erected by Major Dana in 1837 to house his crockery and dry goods business.  In 1861 a fourth floor was added in a simple Italianate style.  Because it is adjoined to the Phoenix Buildings, the cornice was made to match, creating a continuous façade along most of the block.

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In the years before the Civil War, Hanover Square was the busy commercial heart of Syracuse.  So it is no surprise that in 1851 a young attorney, newly arrived, would open his office on the upper floor of the Dana Building, overlooking the Square.  But this lawyer was different from the typical Syracuse attorney.  That is because George Vashon was an African American, the first of his race to practice law in Syracuse.

George Vashon

Vashon had graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1844.  He attempted to practice his profession in Pittsburgh, only to be denied admission to the bar because of his color. But in 1847, he was granted his license to practice in New York State.  He eventually settled in Syracuse, probably drawn here by the city’s abolitionist reputation.

 A depiction of an abolitionist meeting

An advertisement for George Vashon in the Daily Jounal City Directory

Vashon became an active abolitionist, attending several meetings and often serving as a secretary for the gatherings.

But Vashon was frustrated in gaining enough clients to support his law practice.  Local African-Americans in the 1850s faced deep prejudices, which limited most to humble jobs such as porters, waiters, laundresses, day laborers, barbers, and housekeepers.  Although Syracuse had many devout anti-slavery citizens, most were white, and remained reluctant to accept a black lawyer. Vashon eventually left town and turned to teaching.