Marion Thompson Wright had many successes. Right after becoming the first African-American female to earn a doctorate in history with a dissertation that is still relevant today, she began a fruitful career at Howard University.
Between 1940 until her death in 1962, she taught at the university, publishing scholarly articles and working to provide counseling services to students.
In the 1950s, she did research work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that became useful in the Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandated schools to be desegregated nationally.
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Wright had it all at the time – a comfortable apartment in Washington, DC, expensive jewelry and a distinguished personality that got her into many academic organizations as well as invitations to give public lectures.
Despite these successes, Wright’s personal life was a lonely one. She had made a difficult decision along her path to academic success – abandoning her husband and two children to pursue higher education. Living under Jim Crow, it seems that was what many black women at the time had to do if they wanted to succeed and have an illustrious career.
Yet, Wright’s decision troubled her and apparently led her to commit suicide.
Born Marion Manola Thompson in East Orange, New Jersey, on September 13, 1902, with three siblings, her father, a laborer, abandoned them with their mother in the 1910s.
Wright managed to attend his high school in Newark, New Jersey, where she was one of only two black students. But along the way, she dropped out to marry William Henry Moss after getting pregnant at the age of 16.
They had a daughter in 1919 and a son the following year. That was when problems began in the marriage. Moss felt that Wright should have more time for the kids but she was so much into pursuing higher education than anything else.
Accounts say that while married, she attended a school full-time during the day and took classes at night just to be able to catch up on her high school lessons.
What made things worse for the marriage was when she got involved in school activities. Passionate about her education, she left her marriage and children in October 1921 and did not make any effort to return despite pleas from her husband.
In 1923, she graduated from high school near the top of her class and was accepted with a full scholarship at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
But Howard, like most other institutions at the time, did not accept married or divorced women as students. Wright had to hide her marital status when she enrolled in 1923.
Two years later, her husband got a divorce from her and gained full custody of the children. He remarried. As reported, Thompson wrote in a letter dated 1939 to her son James that she felt after the divorce that “everything was settled without my being in [the children’s] future … I then set up my goals and worked toward them.”
Many, to date, feel that Wright’s decision was a harsh one, but to others, she had no choice, considering the environment in which she was. Black women had limited opportunities, and Wright knew that having only a high school diploma with two children would only land her in poorly paid domestic jobs such as working as servants in the homes of white people. She didn’t want that.
While at Howard as a student, she engaged in many projects, including serving at the school’s student council and becoming president of a club that supported needy female students.
Graduating from Howard magna cum laude in 1927, she stayed on at the college; first earning an M.A. in history and education, and then as an instructor. By 1931, she had begun working on a doctorate at Teachers College, part of Columbia University.
Along the way, she married Arthur Wright, a marriage that also ended in divorce. Completing her Ph.D. with a dissertation titled, The Education of Negroes in New Jersey, in History from Columbia University in 1940, she became the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in her field.
Wright returned to Howard University to teach and engaged in several projects. She later joined the NAACP, where she championed black history.
Along the way, she tried to reconcile with her children, but this became impossible. With her broken relationships with her children and other family members, she suffered “severe depression and anxiety”.
On October 12, 1962, the historian and scholar died of an apparent suicide. To date, she is honored each year through a lecture series at Rutgers University. The program remains the most prestigious black studies celebration in New Jersey and one of the largest in the nation, according to records.