Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr.
Major Richard Wright Sr., a former slave, began the movement to have a national observance to honor the day Lincoln signed the 13th amendment. He worked to get the day recognized and got various leaders to support him. In 1942 National Freedom Day was commemorated by laying a wreath at the Liberty Bell. (source: Google.com)
Richard Robert Wright Sr., was born enslaved 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. (source: www.wharton.upenn.edu/125anniversaryissue/wright.html)
Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr. worked on numerous projects related to the commemoration of African Americans’ role to shape the history of the United States. He started contributing with early advocacy by arranging a semi-centennial commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. As said by his contemporary journalist, Wright wanted a freedom celebration with all those of African descent to make the world to sit up and watch. He made it possible with significant backing of others, including whites.
When Robert Wright was a president during his college life, he started gaining appreciations from his razor-sharp mind and intellectual charm. He learned how to negotiate with the powerful and dangerous racial terrain. Wright experienced many confrontations with the structure created by white men. He developed powerful and ground-breaking strategies to work within that power structure and was able to align himself with the opposing structure and constructive elements of that race. He also started receiving appreciations nationally for being an African American revolutionary. It worked in his favor and helped him to get endorsements from senators and the governor of Georgia for his commemorative project.
Amazingly, Wright even gathered support from a variety of fronts including several leading white publications and news outlets of the day. The Augusta Chronicle described Richard Robert Wright, Sr. as a sensible, able, and practical African American who could inspire other African Americans to improve their condition with some practical applications.
Wright founded Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in 1891 (now Savannah State University) and became its first president. He was viewed as a leading figure of Black higher education in the United States. In 1921, he resigned from the college presidency because he found it hard to fight against the white opposition. His position did not enable him to bring changes to the academics, so he moved from the South, decided to start a bank and attended Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. As claimed by him, it was his form of protest against the behavior that his daughter experienced in Georgia Bank.
After moving to the north, he focused more on his bank and his commemorative passion faded away temporarily. In 1926, he established his bank in Philadelphia, the only African-American-owned Bank in the north, Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust. Wright also founded the Negro Bankers Association, also a first. In 1926, he contributed to the United States Sesquicentennial Celebration. The celebration included several events related to the African American culture. Though he financially supported the event, still, his name was not mentioned by many local black leaders attending the events.
After eight years in 1933, Wright once again started to become involved directly with historical memory and commemoration. In 1933 only, Wright was appointed to a Pennsylvania commission. The appointment was made overseeing the formation of the All Wars Memorial. This monument was created in the Fairmount Park of Philadelphia, in the memory of all African Americans who had lost their lives for their country. In the same year, after two decades, Robert Wright started promoting the commemoration of emancipation once again. Wright refreshed his emancipation celebration in his city Philadelphia. In 1933, he organized the 70th Anniversary Celebration of Negro Progress. It continued for five days featuring speeches, parades, and displaying the development and progress of the black. The celebration received positive responses from black and white people. During subsequent years, he organized many more observances centered on emancipation and freedom fighting for African Americans across the country.
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 which honors the signing of a joint resolution of the US Congress that proposed the 13th amendment of the nation’s constitution on February 1, 1865. The 13th Amendment was signed by President Abraham Lincoln to free all U.S. enslaved African Americans and to outlaw slavery.
National Freedom Day is the forerunner to Black History Day, later Black History Week to Black History Month. Carter G. Woodson established Black History Month in 1926 and it was officially recognized by President Harry Truman in 1976.