Richard R. Wright (May 16, 1855 – July 2, 1947) was born a slave in Dalton, Georgia. After emancipation and moving to Cuthbert, Georgia, Wright attended Storrs School (the forerunner of Atlanta University) where he graduated class valedictorian in the University’s first commencement ceremony (1876).
In 1896 Wright became a founding member of the American Negro Academy – the first major African American learned society, refuting racist scholarship, promoting Black claims to individual, social and political equality, and publishing the history and sociology of African American life.
In May 1898, during the Spanish–American War, Wright took a leave of absence to join the U.S. Army. He was commissioned a major in the Army and appointed paymaster of the United States Volunteers by President William McKinley, making him the first African American to be named to the position and the highest ranking African American officer during the Spanish–American War.
Following the war, Wright resumed his commitment to the academic advancement of Black people. In 1891, Wright founded the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in Savannah, Georgia, known today as Savannah State University. As founder and president, Wright took responsibility for developing curricula while traveling to various higher education institutions, including Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Girard College of Philadelphia and the Hirsch School in New York, documenting trends and practices in higher education. Based on his observations, the school’s initial curriculum included 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. Wright’s well-rounded approach to Black higher education garnered the attention and support of prominent African American leaders including Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell, all of whom visited the University as guest lecturers. Even U.S. Presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft visited the campus. Upon his retirement in 1921, Wright saw the University grow from eight to 400+ students, along with curriculum expansion including a normal division for teacher training, courses in agriculture and mechanical arts, and four-year high school subjects.
After retirement Wright moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and decided to open a bank. At 67 years old, he enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He established the Philadelphia’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company, making it the only African American-owned bank in the North and the first African American trust company. Under his leadership, the bank survived the Great Depression, holding assets of $5.5 million up until it was sold in 1957.
In the 1940s, Wright invited national and local leaders to Philadelphia to rally for the establishment of National Freedom Day – an official recognition of the signing of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Wright contended it was the 13th Amendment rather than the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all American slaves. President Harry Truman signed the holiday proclamation into law on June 30, 1948, a year after Wright passed. National Freedom Day is the forerunner to Black History Day and later Black History Month.
Watch. Learn. Apply. That was Richard R. Wright’s life. From organizations to universities to banks, he sought knowledge and understanding to create institutions he believed would improve Black life. So, too, should we commit to being students, observers, teachers, and principals (leaders), learning from and bringing together diverse thought to a matter. This is the conscious commitment that changes ideas, individuals and institutions.
They give us a month, but we make Black History Everyday.
– Kristen Evans