Richard R. Wright

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Richard Robert Wright Sr.
Richard R Wright.jpg
Richard R. Wright
President Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth
Term 1891 – 1921
Successor Cyrus G. Wiley
Born (1855-05-16)May 16, 1855[1]
Dalton, Georgia[1]
Died July 2, 1947(1947-07-02) (aged 92)[2]
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Alma mater Atlanta University[1]
The Wharton School[1]
Profession American military officer, educator, banker
Spouse Lydia Elizabeth (Howard) Wright

Richard Robert Wright, Sr. (May 16, 1855 – July 2, 1947) was an American military officer, educator and college president, politician, civil rights advocate and banking entrepreneur. Among his many accomplishments, he founded a high school, a college and a bank. He also founded the National Freedom Day Association.[1]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Wright was born into slavery on May 16, 1855, in a log cabin six miles from Dalton, Georgia.[1][3]

Education[edit]

After emancipation, Wright’s mother moved with her son from Dalton to Cuthbert, Georgia. He attended the Storrs School. The school had a reputation among freedmen as a place for their children to be educated.[4] While visiting the school, retired Union General Oliver Otis Howard asked what message he should take to the North. The young Wright reportedly told him: "Sir, tell them we are rising." That exchange inspired a once-famous poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.[4][5]

The Storrs School, a forerunner of Atlanta University, was one of many academic schools for freedmen's children founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA). He was valedictorian at Atlanta University's first commencement ceremony in 1876.[3]

Military career[edit]

In August 1898, President William McKinley appointed him as Major and paymaster of United States Volunteers in the United States Army. He was the first African American to serve as an Army paymaster. During the Spanish-American War, he was the highest ranking African-American officer.[5][6] He was honorably discharged in December of the same year.

Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth[edit]

From 1891 to 1921, Wright served as the first president of the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, a historically black college (HBCU) in Savannah, Georgia.[3] It is now Savannah State University.

During the 1890s, Wright traveled to various locations, including Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Girard College of Philadelphia, and the Hirsch School in New York, to document current trends in higher education. Based on his studies, he developed a curriculum at Georgia State College to include elements of the seven classical liberal arts, the "Talented Tenth" philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington’s vocationalism and self-reliance concepts, and the educational model of the New England colleges (he was a graduate of Atlanta University under the instruction of Dartmouth College and Yale University graduates).[3]

At the time, Wright was viewed as one of the leading figures of black higher education in America, conferring regularly with major educational leaders.[3] Visitors and lecturers to campus during his tenure as president included Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Walter Barnard Hill, Lucy Craft Laney, Mary Church Terrell, Booker T. Washington and Monroe Nathan Work.[3] U.S. presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft also visited the campus and spoke to students in Peter W. Meldrim Hall.[3]

By the end of Wright's tenure as president, the college’s enrollment had increased from the original eight students to more than 400. Additionally, he expanded the curriculum to include a normal division (for teacher training), courses in agriculture and mechanical arts, and four-year high school subjects.[3]

Banker[edit]

After moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1921 Wright decided to open a bank. At age 67 he enrolled in the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania to prepare for this venture.[5] He entered the business world in 1921, creating and leading Philadelphia's Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company at 1849 South Street. At the time, it was the only African-American-owned bank in the North and the first African American Trust Company. He also founded the Negro Bankers Association. It was the first African-American banking association.[5]

Under his leadership, the bank withstood the Great Depression. When it was sold in 1957, more than a decade after Wright’s death, it had assets of $5.5 million.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Wright was married to Lydia Elizabeth (Howard) Wright; together they had nine children.

Legacy[edit]

Family legacy[edit]

In June 1898, his son Richard R. Wright, Jr. received the first baccalaureate degree awarded by Georgia State Industrial College. He went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, having studied in the new field of sociology. He became a professor and later president of Wilberforce University in Ohio and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.[3]

One of Richard Jr's daughters, Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre, also earned a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. They were the first African-American father and daughter to do so. Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre became the first full-time African-American teacher in the Philadelphia public-school system. She served as a senior high-school principal and as the first female president of the Philadelphia Board of Education. At age 80, she established the "Tell Them We Are Rising" program, promising to pay college tuition for 116 sixth-graders in two poor North Philadelphia schools if they completed high school. Her story was chronicled in her book Tell Them We Are Rising: A Memoir of Faith in Education, published in 1997, the year before she died.[4]

National Freedom Day[edit]

Wright invited national and local leaders to meet in Philadelphia to formulate plans to set aside February 1 each year to memorialize the signing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by President Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865, which freed all U.S. slaves.[1] One year after Wright's death in 1947, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. The holiday proclamation was signed into law on June 30, 1948, by President Harry Truman. It was the forerunner to Black History Day and later Black History Month, officially recognized in 1976, though began by Carter G. Woodson in 1926.[5][7]

Suggested reading[edit]

  • Elmore, Charles J. (1996), Richard R. Wright, Sr., at GSIC, 1891-1921: A Protean Force for the Social Uplift and Higher Education of Black Americans, Savannah, Georgia: privately printed.
  • Hall, Clyde W. (1991), One Hundred Years of Educating at Savannah State College, 1890-1990, East Peoria, Ill.: Versa Press.
  • Patton, June O. (1996), "'And the Truth Shall Make You Free': Richard Robert Wright, Sr., Black Intellectual and Iconoclast, 1877-1897", The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 81.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Pennsylvania: Life and Times of Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr. and the National Freedom Day Association". Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
  2. ^ Kranz, Rachel (2004). African-American business leaders and entrepreneurs. Infobase Publishing. p. 302. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i ""Savannah State University"". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
  4. ^ a b c "African American Firsts Highlight Rich Legacy". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Wharton Alumni Magazine: 125 Influential People and Ideas: Richard Robert Wright Sr.". Retrieved 2008-08-30. [dead link]
  6. ^ "Documenting the American South". Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  7. ^ "National Freedom Day: A Local Legacy". Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
Academic offices
New title
Established school
President of
Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth

1891 — 1921
Succeeded by
Cyrus G. Wiley