When retired Union Civil War soldier, General Oliver Otis Howard, visited an Atlanta school in 1868 and asked the students what message he should take to the North, a student named Richard Robert Wright replied with the words, “Sir, tell them we are rising.”
Born a slave near Dalton, Georgia, in 1855, these words would influence his life, as young Wright rose to become a groundbreaker.
He became an educator, a military officer, an intellectual, a politician, a civil rights advocate, and an entrepreneur. In fact, throughout his life and times, he founded a high school, a college, a bank, and owned several newspapers.
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But most importantly, he fought for the desegregation of the military and founded the February 1 National Freedom Day to promote harmony and equal opportunity among all citizens.
And here’s how.
Coming from a slave background near Dalton, Georgia, Wright and his mother moved to Atlanta, Georgia when the Civil War ended. There, he attended the Storrs School, an institution founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA) to educate the children of the freed people.
Wright moved on to become one of the first graduates of Atlanta University, receiving his BA as class valedictorian in 1876. He would study at some of the elite institutions in the U.S., including Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Oxford University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Until 1921, Wright remained in Georgia where he began work as a distinguished educator, journalist and political figure.
Becoming active in Republican politics, Wright was appointed president of the Georgia State Industrial College in 1891. Now known as the Savannah State College, the institution was set up to offer vocational education to black people.
Wright also served five times as a delegate at Republican national conventions and was appointed a United States army paymaster with the rank of major during the Spanish-American War, the first black person to serve as Army paymaster.
However, when he was given a diplomatic post in Liberia in 1897, he declined, citing family and professional reasons.
Having led Georgia State Industrial College from 1891 to 1921, Wright moved to Philadelphia where most of his children were based. There, he became involved in real estate but later decided to open a bank.
Thus, even at the age of 67, he enrolled in the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. He subsequently teamed with his son Richard R. Wright Jr. and daughter Lillian Wright Clayton to found the Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company, the only Northern black-owned bank at the time.
“Wright saw his bank as another vehicle for education, with the goal of teaching working-class black people how to save their money and budget their low incomes. In those days, many white institutions either would not accept black customers or as Julia Wright found, treated them rudely,” writes Rachel Kranz in the book African-American Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs.
Wright’s bank, which later offered insurance and mortgages to black customers, remained stable in the city even through the Depression. It had assets of $5.5 million when it was sold in 1957, a decade after Wright’s death.
For someone who is said to have known personally all the U.S. presidents from Hayes through Truman, Wright, as a civil rights advocate, wrote a letter to President Truman about a brutal assault meted out to a Black returned veteran by white policemen.
Truman called for investigations, and the suspects were brought before court. But they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Wright did not end there. He, together with some white liberals, advocated for a federal civil rights commission.
Truman agreed, and in 1946, he formed a Committee on Civil Rights to investigate the status of “civil rights in the country and propose measures to strengthen and protect them.”
Among other things, the Committee’s report, published in October 1947, proposed “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin, in the organization and activities of all branches of the Armed Services.”
Truman ultimately ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces after signing an executive order issued on July 26, 1948.
Wright was not alive to witness the result of what he had fought for, but before his death, he lobbied Congress to create National Freedom Day on February 1.
The businessman and civil rights advocate suggested that the day is set aside to commemorate the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, freeing all U.S. slaves.
The holiday was not formally created until a year after Wright’s death when Truman signed the measure into law in 1948 and now serves as the first day of Black History Month.