Message from SCICU President and CEO Jeff Perez –
I am going to tell you the story of an indomitable young woman. She refused to be contained by the many obstacles she encountered in her efforts to found a school, succumbing only to the limitations her own body imposed.*
Throughout her life her determination and faith would be rewarded in the most unexpected, and most fortunate, ways.
She was born in 1876 to a poor black farming family living in Georgia during Reconstruction. Her schooling was limited, but she persisted. As an early teen while reading under an elm tree in town, a breeze carried a scrap of newspaper to her feet, and on it was an advertisement for the Tuskegee Industrial School. So began her relationship with Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee, and the inspiration for this young woman’s vision for starting her own school.
The advertisement explained that “poor colored boys and girls could get an education by working their way through school.”
Her own family intended to impose upon this young woman an acceptance of their limited circumstances. They did not consider her going away to school possible, or desirable. She would not let the matter drop and eventually they relented.
Tuskegee wasn’t free and her family had nothing. She took on washing to earn pennies that became the few dollars she had when set off for Tuskegee. She still did not have enough to enroll as a day student, and worked in the kitchen while attending night school. Her physical frailty did not permit for this arrangement but Mrs. Washington herself heard of the young woman’s travails and arranged for a benefactor to provide a scholarship, and for lighter duties. The capacity of her body would never match the breadth of her will.
Inspired by the example set by Booker T. Washington, upon graduating – at the ripe old age of 22 – she immediately set about founding her own school. She wanted to establish in South Carolina an institution where young black men and women would break out of the poverty into which they were born by learning a trade and at the same time receive an academic and moral education that would equip them to become leaders of their people.
First she needed a location for the school. She tried three different towns and encountered white bigotry and suspicion within her own community.
At the first location her work was burned down. Twice.
At the second location, the white community was openly hostile and black leaders were threatened by the forthright young woman who they knew little about. Timber was cut down on the land she intended to buy, rendering it useless.
She encountered much the same at the third location. The very committee of locals she formed to assist her bought the land for the school so that she could not.
At this point no one would have thought less of this young woman if she concluded founding a school for poor black children in rural South Carolina was beyond her physical capacity. She persevered through her most trying hours nourished by her faith and driven by a determination to create hope and opportunity where there had been none.
At the fourth location, in Denmark, South Carolina, she found a more receptive, though not entirely welcoming, community. She also found benefactors who treated her fairly, buoyed her spirits, and provided the financial support she previously could only have dreamt possible.
State Senator S.G. Mayfield, impressed by a letter of endorsement from Booker T. Washington himself, became the young woman’s local champion at the expense of his own political future. He made land available for her to buy and spoke for her in the white community. Her first school in Denmark enrolled 14 students who were taught in a single room with a few chairs donated by neighbors. It was a start but she wanted much more.
As always, the money at hand did not match her ambitions. She had grown accustomed to walking miles, in good weather and bad, to local churches in order to raise just a few dollars, and often less. Her clothes were threadbare and her shoes worn because everything she had went toward the school.
At one point she had visited 66 churches around Denmark and had raised a total of $184.53. She gave Sen. Mayfield a $200 down payment for the land, cabin, and shanties that in 1897 became the Denmark Industrial School. Amazingly, she had 236 students for the first term.
The facilities were not nearly adequate. In an effort to raise additional funds she travelled north in search of donations, but to little effect. After a fruitless day going door-to-door in Philadelphia, she slept on a bench at the train station. At home vocal opposition from a local black pastor who felt threatened by this young woman’s success resulted in the local churches closing their doors, and purses, to her.
But her travels north produced the name of a gentleman who might be willing to help. After initial correspondences she traveled to New Jersey and made her case in person.
She had been tapping her limited physical reserve to scratch together a few hundred dollars, but Ralph Voorhees gave her thousands for a larger tract of land, buildings and equipment. The school was named Voorhees Industrial School and its founder was Elizabeth Evelyn Wright.
The school prospered, offering its students a wide variety of trades to learn with 17 teachers, a working farm, dormitories, and an infirmary, named the Booker T. Washington Hospital.
Voorhees Industrial School was Elizabeth Evelyn Wright’s life – she married the school’s treasurer. And having given every bit of herself to the school, her brief life ended with the completion of her task.
Elizabeth Evelyn Wright died in 1906, nine years after her school opened in Denmark, at the age of just 34.
Elizabeth Evelyn Wright’s impact on so many thousands of lives through what became Voorhees College was recognized this month by her induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame.
I can think of no more poignant way of commemorating Black History Month than by recalling the life and vision of Elizabeth Evelyn Wright.
*In telling this story I relied on Tuskegee to Voorhees, written in 1922 by Dr. J.F.B. Coleman, who knew and deeply admired Elizabeth Evelyn Wright.