In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially designated the month of February as “Black History Month.” This is a time for all Americans to honor and remember the contributions African Americans have made to this country. There are so many heroes in our past whose stories are America’s story. One such man is Major Richard R. Wright, Sr. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1853, he lived a fierce and vibrant life. At the age of 12, General O. O. Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, visited his school. He asked the class, “What should I tell the children up North about you?” Richard Wright stood up and replied, “Tell ’em we’re rising.” This story gained national attention when Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized the scene in his poem “Howard at Atlanta.”
And rise he did. Richard Wright was valedictorian of the first class to graduate from Atlanta University in 1876. He went on to become an army paymaster in the Spanish-American War and official historian of Georgia’s colored troops during World War I, which sent him overseas to Europe. He also served for thirty years as president of the State College of Industry for Colored Youth (now Savannah State College). In 1921, when he was almost 70 years old, he moved to Philadelphia, PA where several of his children lived. He teamed up with his son to establish a bank and then founded the National Negro Bankers Association. In 1935, in his eighties by this point, he established a company that imported Haitian coffee until the start of World War II. He was also involved in some early conversations to incorporate African American perspectives into the United Nations. He was planning to attend the centennial celebrations in Liberia when he passed away on July 2, 1947 at the age of 94.
One of Major Wright’s enduring legacies is National Freedom Day. This federal holiday celebrates the signing of the 13th Amendment on February 1 that officially ended slavery in the United States. Wright championed this holiday before mayors, governors, and presidents. Although he passed away before it became official, President Truman signed a proclamation in 1949 that “call[s] upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.”
So, in addition to Juneteenth, add National Freedom Day to your list of important days to commemorate. Interested in learning more about Major Wright’s fight to get the holiday established? Read the article, “‘A Beacon to Oppressed Peoples Everywhere’: Major Richard R. Wright, Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s.” It’s a fabulous article, and this blog post is indebted to it for the information presented above.
Interested in more stories like this one? We highly recommend these ebooks:
- Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-breaking and Pioneering Historical Events
- Voices of the African American Experience
- African American Lives
Haynes, Elizabeth Ross. The Black Boy of Atlanta. Boston :, 1952, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015009158562.
Kachun, Mitch. “‘A Beacon to Oppressed Peoples Everywhere’: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 128, no. 3, 2004, pp. 279–306. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093723. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.