The Wright Family Legacy
Experience the curated index of Ruth Wright Hayre's oral history interview.
“...I guess a lot of people have stayed in the South because they were in situations where they were doing well. They were contented, and they just didn’t leave.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
Celebrated for her own academic and civic contributions to the city of Philadelphia, Ruth Wright Hayre was the granddaughter and daughter of prominent educators and businessmen. Born into slavery in 1855 in Georgia, her grandfather, Richard Robert Wright, Sr., in 1876 became the first Black man to open a school in Georgia, and after earning a law degree in 1891, became president of the Industrial College for Colored Youth near Savannah (today’s Savannah State College).
After graduating from Georgia State Industrial College in 1898 and completing his theological training at the University of Chicago in 1904, her father, Richard Robert, Wright, Jr., moved to Philadelphia to earn his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’m sure that...my father never could have lived in the South. He was too vocal, too articulate, he saw it was wrong, he just never could have lived his life in the South. And I guess he knew early that he would have to leave, and of course, there were many more opportunities, as prejudice as the North was at the time, there still were many more opportunities, at least to live free, in a way, and to get a good education for your children, than would have been in the South.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
In Philadelphia, R. R. Wright Jr. threw himself into the life of the city, conducting studies, organizing a settlement house and literary society, and serving as industrial secretary for the Armstrong Association, an organization founded to help Blacks find jobs and thrive in their new lives in Philadelphia. He also became editor of The Christian Recorder and the manager of the African Methodist Episcopal Book Concern. Seeing Black Philadelphians struggle to find homes and jobs, he started a bank, savings & loan association, and realty business.
“[R.R. Wright, Jr.'s interest in real estate was] the result of the need of people...See, he didn’t have a church, but he met a lot of people through church, and he would meet people who would come up from the South, maybe they were renting, or maybe they were looking for a place, or maybe they didn’t know how to go about getting a mortgage, or anything. And so, he just began to help people here and there.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
While his son was becoming a mover and shaker in Philadelphia, R.R. Wright, Sr. was enjoying life as an elder statesman in Georgia. The longtime president of the Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah, Wright had been president of both the Association of Colleges for Negroes and the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. He had also served in the military, achieving the rank of Major while serving as an Army Paymaster during the Spanish American War.
“My grandfather lived, I guess, a fairly happy life until he was 67, 68, in the South...And he’d been president of that college for 30 years...he was an older generation, and I guess he sort of figured, well, things aren’t too bad... So, my grandfather, I think, you know, he began to start thinking. And my father was up here making a lot of waves... So my father said, ‘Why don’t you come on up, and let’s start a bank.’ And well, my grandfather didn’t need a whole lot of encouragement. So, he picked up, lock, stock, and barrel in a couple of years, they made all their plans and everything, and came right on up here.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
R.R. Wright, Sr. did not intend to leave the South until a white bank teller insulted and then assaulted his daughter Julia. Outraged at the refusal of the bank president, an old friend, to take any action, in 1920 he moved his family, including his adult children E.C. and Harriet Wright, to Philadelphia and there enrolled in banking classes at the Wharton School for Business. In 1921, the Wrights founded the Citizens and Southern Banking Company in Philadelphia.
“But the bank, in a small way, definitely prospered. As my father said, it didn’t make money. I know people used to say to me, ‘Yeah, your granddaddy’s bank, all you have to do is go down there, sweep the floor, sweep the money up off the floors, that’s all you have to do.’ I mean, that’s what my friends would say to me. I said, ‘You don’t know the half.’” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
Citizens and Southern became a beacon of Black business acumen during the 1920s, and while other banks failed, it weathered the Great Depression, maintaining its strict lending policies and continuing to attract depositors. The bank helped launch dozens of Black businesses and helped Black business owners succeed, and when it became a trust company, it provided Black Philadelphians the loans they needed to start businesses and buy homes.
“Something happened, and the banks were in such terrible condition, that there was a close down of all of them. So naturally, nobody expected the little Citizen and Southern to open up. And I remember clearly, my grandfather and my father both saying, yes, indeed, we opened up the paper, they listed the banks that could reopen... and there at the very top, heading the list, was Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
In addition to his work with the bank, R.R. Wright, Sr. campaigned for civil rights and a national holiday to honor the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. A year after his death in 1947, February 1 became National Freedom Day.
In 1932, R.R. Wright, Jr. left Philadelphia to become the president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. Four years later, in 1936, he started traveling as a bishop for the A.M.E. church. He returned to Philadelphia after his retirement in 1956 and remained in the city until his death in 1967.
“There was [a] group [of] two or three boys...And they seemed to come from sort of a laboring class of people. A couple of them dropped out... we still don’t have, and never have really had social promotion...These kids would get left back. They were Black kids, boys chiefly. And I remember clearly in the seventh grade, when I got to seventh grade, I was always upfront...Because they had another very undemocratic way of putting you according to your grades, or your marks in the class.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984
Ruth Wright Hayre was a precocious student. After earning her masters from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of twenty, she in 1949 earned her PhD at Penn, as she and her father became the university's first African-American father and daughter PhD recipients. Following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Hayre dedicated her life to education and made her own unique imprint in Philadelphia. As the first African-American principal of a Philadelphia high school she provided guidance and a role model for the children of other newcomers to the city, from the South and from other countries.
“I was principal of a high school where one-third of the children had either migrated, or their parents had migrated from the South. And I did a little study, because sometimes, the teachers seemed to think that what was wrong with the school was we had too many people coming up from the South...I found that those youngsters who’d come up from the South had a far better academic back ground...they were more motivated, more ambitious.” – Ruth Wright Hayre, 1984