The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.

Part Twenty-Nine: African American Educators and Their Sacred Mission

Little-known Elizabeth Evelyn Wright was born in a small Georgia town in 1872, just after the Civil War. Although she only lived thirty-four years, she left her mark on the education of rural African Americans. Her dreams of educational opportunity for the poor were realized when she founded Voorhees College in 1897. She was a disciple of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and established her school on the principles of industrial and agricultural education. Although she was frail and physically sick most of her life, and only possessed the rudiments of a high school education, she became a pioneer in Black education and social reform. Like many others before and after her, she possessed such a sense of mission and commitment to social justice and to the elevation of her people that she was able to prevail over enormous obstacles and leave a remarkable legacy.

At the age of sixteen she enrolled in Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, where she came under the dynamic influence of Booker T. Washington. She remarked about this influence when she stated that: "I was at Tuskegee only a short time before I made up my mind to try to be the same type of woman as Mr. Washington was of a man." She said she learned from Washington "to try to help my fellow men to help themselves, and if a way was not opened to me, I must open it myself."

Her experiences in the rural South helped her to develop an understanding of the desperate conditions of poverty, illiteracy and exploitation of rural African Americans. Many of these rural farmers and tenants had lost their crops, livestock and farms to unsympathetic banks, planters and merchants who manipulated the credit, lien and mortgage system. Most rural African Americans in the South were reduced to abject poverty and virtual slavery at the hands of the tenant farming and sharecropping systems. Eventually, these conditions would help force African Americans to migrate out of the South during the World War I period. Elizabeth Evelyn Wright's contribution to helping to improve the lot of her people was industrial and agricultural education. Her courage and persistence in nurturing a young educational enterprise reflects the strength and capability of African American women at the turn of the century when there was great opposition to educating her people. She withstood the threats and attacks of the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-African American groups that burned her initial school building. Finally she moved to Denmark, South Carolina in a less hostile atmosphere and in 1897 opened her school. This persistent educational endeavor grew into a well-established institution which is one of the more than one hundred predominantly Black colleges that emerged out of the ashes of the Civil War and Reconstruction Periods.

Elizabeth Evelyn Wright was greatly influenced by Mrs. Booker T. Washington who worked closely with the female students at Tuskegee Institute. Unfortunately Mrs. Washington died at a young age, 35 years old. She was particularly concerned that the women develop a sense of dignity, pride and mission. Mrs. Washington inspired Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and others with comments such as:

"We cannot too seriously consider this question of the moral uplifting of our women for it is of national importance to us. It is with our women that the purity and safety of our families rest, and what families are the race will be."

Emphasis on education has remained a major career objective for the African American leadership. In a study conducted in 1900 of 2,500 Black college graduates more than 53% of these graduates were teachers, presidents of institutions, heads of teachers colleges, principles of city school systems, etc. 17% were clergy, another 17% were in the professions, primarily physicians. Over 6% were merchants, farmers and artisans and 4% were in government service. Today a similar study would show a much broader range of career choices even though teaching and the clergy would be prominent.

The role of the more than one hundred predominantly Black Colleges and Universities in shaping the African American community has been enormous. They are still important in preparing leadership even though in 1980 more than one half million African American youth were students in predominantly white institutions.

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