Richard Robert Wright Sr., was born a slave on May 16, 1855. Despite his beginnings, Wright made remarkable contributions in education, banking, politics, civic affairs and real estate and became a post-reconstruction pioneer and trailblazer. Among his accomplishments he founded a university, high school, and a bank. Wright also owned several newspapers and founded the National Freedom Day Association.
In 1891, Wright founded the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in Savannah, Georgia, now known as Savannah State University. He served as its first president from 1891 to 1921. U.S. Presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft also visited the campus. By the end of Wright’s presidency in 1921, he was considered an important leader in higher education for African Americans. By the end of Wright’s tenure, the college had well over 400 students.
Wright’s passion for education extended to his children and grandchildren. His son, Richard Robert Wright Jr., was one of the first African American to earn a doctorate in sociology at University of Pennsylvania. He was president of Wilberforce University, and a top theologian in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Wright Jr.’s daughter, Ruth Wright Hayre, was a prominent educator and became the Philadelphia school board president after also earning a doctorate from Penn. She and her father were the University’s first black father and daughter doctoral recipients.
In 1921, Wright Sr. retired from the Presidency of Georgia State Industrial College at the age of 67. He later moved to Philadelphia to open a bank and enrolled at the Wharton School of Business. He later founded the Philadelphia’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company, the first black-owned bank in a Northern state. The bank withstood the Great Depression and had assets of $5.5 million when it was sold in 1957.
Richard Robert Wright, Sr. died in Philadelphia in 1947 at the age of 94. A year after his death, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. Wright initiated this holiday to recognize the day in which the 13th Amendment was signed by President Abraham Lincoln to free all U.S. slaves.