Educator Elizabeth Wright was born in Talbotton, Georgia, on April 3, 1872. She was the seventh child of twenty-one children born to black carpenter John Wesley Wright and his full-blooded Cherokee wife, Virginia Rolfe.
Wright grew up in a three-room cabin built by her father and attended an all-grades school held in a church basement. At the age of sixteen, she read a flyer about the Tuskegee Institute, founded in Alabama by Booker T. Washington. The school provided African Americans with vocational skills that improved economic opportunities.
After scraping together enough money for train fare, she arrived at Tuskegee in 1888 as a night student who would pay her way by working on campus during the day. After two years at Tuskegee, she moved to McNeill’s, a sawmill town in Hampton County, South Carolina, to help in a school for rural African Americans founded by Tuskegee trustee Almira S. Steele. After the school was burned down by whites living in the town, Wright moved back to Tuskegee to graduate. Wright was determined to start a school of her own that would replace the school in McNeill’s. However, several of the Lowcountry schools were burned by white arsonists.
Wright eventually managed to secure funding by campaigning at local churches and tapping northern benefactors willing to support education for African Americans. In 1895, determined to teach basic math and literacy to mill and farm workers, she founded in Hampton County the state’s first night school for African American men. Although she later organized two additional all-grades schools for African Americans in Hampton County, her goal was a large Institute on the Tuskegee model, with acreage enough for a demonstration farm.
In 1897, Wright moved to the town of Denmark, where she opened a school over a grocery store and began raising money for her larger venture, Denmark Industrial Institute. Her most generous benefactor was Ralph Voorhees of Clinton, New Jersey, who provided $5,000 for the purchase of 280 acres and construction of a schoolhouse. Voorhees Industrial School opened its first building to African American male and female students from elementary to high school ages in 1902. By 1903 the student population was over two hundred.
Wright married Tuskegee graduate Martin A. Menafee in 1906. Within a month she became terminally ill with intestinal problems that had plagued her since childhood. She traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, for surgery and died there on December 14, 1906.