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Richard R. Wright Sr.
*On this date in 1855, Richard Wright Sr. was born. He was an Black military officer, educator and college president, politician, civil rights advocate and banking entrepreneur.
Richard Robert Wright Sr. was born into slavery in a log cabin six miles from Dalton, Georgia. 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. 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.
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. In 1890, Wright and Emanuel K. Love were in a dispute with John H. Deveaux, who was in control of Georgia's African American Republic Party. Deveaux was supported by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and identified with light-skinned elites, while Love and Wright (and Charles T. Walker) represented a "black" or "darker-skinned" faction, although skin color was not as important as political allegiance and ideology.
In 1896, Alfred Eliab Buck was the leader of the Georgia Republican Party. Buck was the president of the Republican State Convention in late April and presided over the electing of delegates to the 1896 Republican National Convention. There was dispute over the delegates, which Buck attempted to preempt by passing a "harmony" slate of delegates outside of standard procedure. However, the slate did not include Wright, who many believed would be a delegate. The convention erupted in protest and a representative of Buck's attempted to adjourn the meeting and the Buck faction left the hall. The Wright faction remained and his friend, Emanuel K. Love took the chair, electing a new slate of delegates, now including Love and Buck (but still not Wright). Eventually Wright was not selected as a delegate but did attend as an alternate.
In August 1898, President William McKinley appointed him as major and paymaster of United States Volunteers in the United States Army. During the Spanish American War, he was the highest ranking African American officer. He was honorably discharged in December of the same year. During the 1890s, Wright traveled to various locations, including Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Girard College, 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. 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. It is now Savannah State University.
At the time, Wright was viewed as one of the leading figures of Black higher education in America, conferring regularly with major educational leaders. Visitors and lecturers to campus during his tenure as president included George Washington Carver, Lucy Craft Laney, Mary Church Terrell, Monroe Nathan Work and others. U.S. presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft also visited the campus and spoke to students in Peter W. Meldrim Hall. 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. He was a participant in the March 5, 1897 meeting to celebrate the memory of Frederick Douglass which founded the American Negro Academy led by Alexander Crummell.
From the founding of the organization until 1902, Wright remained active among the scholars, editors, and activists of this 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. 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. 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. Richard Robert Wright Sr. died on July 2, 1947.