Historian and Sculptor Discuss Wright’s Life and Legacy
Richard R. Wright Sr., Savannah State’s first president, was born into slavery on May 16, 1855, in a log cabin outside of Dalton, Ga. Though functionally illiterate until he was 11 or 12, Wright graduated as valedictorian of Atlanta University’s historic first baccalaureate class in 1876.
Wright served as president of Savannah State (then called Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths) from 1891 to 1921. In his later years, he moved to Philadelphia, where he founded Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company in Philadelphia, one of the first African-American-owned banks in the North at the time. In 1941, Wright lobbied to establish a national holiday in commemoration of President Lincoln signing legislation to abolish slavery (13th Amendment) on February 1, 1865. Wright’s efforts led to President Truman signing a bill in 1948 proclaiming February 1 as National Freedom Day. Wright died in 1947.
In 2013, Savannah State University honored its first president by naming its newest residence hall Richard R. Wright Sr. Hall. The modern, two-story edifice was dedicated on April 11 during a ceremony attended by Wright’s great-granddaughter, Rev. Carolyn V. Jordan. To mark the occasion, the university unveiled a bronze bust of Wright, sculpted by prominent Savannah artist Jerome Meadows.
Here, Jerome Meadows and Charles J. Elmore, Ph.D., retired SSU professor emeritus, historian and author of a 1996 biography on Wright, reflect on Wright’s inspirational life, the artistry behind the bust and the lesson today’s students can learn from his legacy.
On Richard R. Wright’s Early Life
Elmore: Richard Wright was the quintessential modern man … He rose from the ashes of slavery like a phoenix bird … He was enrolled in the Boxcar School in Atlanta, where at about the age of 12 he began to learn to read and write. … General Oliver Otis Howard was at one of the Boxcar Schools in his capacity as the director of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He gave an impassioned speech to the young charges there and many adults who could not read and write. … He posited a question, “What shall I tell the white people in the North about the black people in the South?” This spindly very dark boy who was Richard Wright Sr., about 11 or 12 years of age, I imagine, stood up and told them, “Tell them we are rising.”
On Richard R. Wright’s Legacy at Savannah State University
Elmore: On October 7, the first Wednesday in October, 1891, Wright came here with eight students who were graduates of Edmond Asa Ware High School, where he was principal in Augusta. Savannah State began as Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths, June, 1891, in the Baxter Street School building in Athens, Ga., after the Georgia General Assembly created the college on November 26, 1890. When Wright arrived in Savannah, he had to debate with the Board of Commissioners about what kind of curriculum could be offered. … He formulated a curriculum based on the Talented Tenth philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois, the self-reliance and vocationalism of Booker T. Washington, and the model of the New England college under which he was trained at Atlanta University. … He formulated a curriculum based on the seven ancient medieval liberal arts — the trivium, which is grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the quadrinium, which is arithmetic, geometry, astrology and music. The original curriculum has transitioned to what we see at present in Savannah State’s three academic colleges and School of Teacher Education.
On the Inspiration Behind the Bust Commemorating Richard R. Wright
Meadows: The challenge of doing a bust of someone, particularly someone of his stature and with his history, is that there’s so much there, there’s more there than you can put into one piece of sculpture. … His history was already impressive to me, but I was also inspired by the fact that the bust would be here on campus and that there wasn’t one already here. I kind of heard him speaking to me as I was working on the bust, saying, ‘Finally, finally.’ … That was a big inspiration. He was coming home to the institution that he formulated, and I was responsible for bringing it into existence.
On Creating the Bust’s Foundation
Meadows: There was an interesting opportunity with the pedestal. When we first started to commission for the bust, we hadn’t talked about what it was going to be set on. The more I worked on the sculpture and the more inspired I became by Mr. Wright, the more it impressed me that the pedestal should represent his strength of character and the rich history. So I procured a piece of granite, which if you know anything about stones, is one of the hardest ones. It has that durability. And I took the opportunity, on a personal level, to carve the pedestal myself. This was an additional way for me to honor Mr. Wright and express the character of this person, this heroic bedrock of American society.
On the Dedication of Richard R. Wright Sr. Hall and the Unveiling of the Bust
Elmore: One of the finest days of my life was April 11, 2013, when I had the occasion to be with Mr. Meadows; Dr. Cheryl D. Dozier; Reverend Jordan — the great-granddaughter of Richard Wright — and Angela Vann, her niece; my wife, Juanita; and Edna Jackson, my classmate, the first black female mayor of Savannah, to witness the dedication of this beautiful building and Richard Wright’s bust. That was a pinnacle moment for me in my 70 years of living.
On What Today’s Students Can Learn From Richard R. Wright’s Legacy
Meadows: There’s way more history than one piece of sculpture can convey, so what I had the honor and opportunity to do in rendering the sculpture was to add to the celebration of what the person stands for, add to the commemoration of what that person has done not only for Savannah and Savannah State but for black folks in general. I hope that what students will get from this sculpture is that Wright is someone who is worthy of celebration and that that celebration is not simply on the day of the unveiling but is a daily, on-going thing. When you look at that bust and you look at him as an individual and learn the history, you realize this is something worth celebrating. There’s so much that we have by way of struggle and in many cases failures, sometimes it looks like we’re sliding backwards. I think part of how we can counter that is to remind ourselves of the accomplishments that have been made, and not just quietly, but in a celebratory way, and to collectively honor those things that are proactive parts of our history. These are the things, this is the energy, this is the collectiveness that will take us forward. And ultimately if we can’t move forward, all of this has been in vain.
Elmore: For many years I taught freshman composition … I had a lecture called Tiger Pride 101 and my simple message was this: if Richard Wright could rise above the institution of slavery and come here and leave you this place called Savannah State, how could you do less? You have to ask yourself, ‘In my life what shall I do?’ I cannot do less than what this man left for me. Wright’s legacy is all-inclusive, and now includes whites and blacks who matriculated. I think students should take from Richard Wright, ‘Go to your classes, study, learn to read and write and think standing on your feet.’ Take that from Richard Wright. Take the ‘never give up, never quit attitude.’ Pursue what’s right. Pursue knowledge. It’s like Tennyson said, “We have to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Meadows: If I could add to that, how many of the students here now, 20, 30, 40 years out, will have busts created for their accomplishments? How many Richard Wrights are here now? The future is really what it’s all about.
This story originally appeared in Impressions, Fall 2015.