Marion Thompson Wright is greatest referred to as the first female African-American to earn a doctorate in history. Her 1940 dissertation, defended at Academics School at Columbia University—The Schooling of Negroes in New Jersey, a historical past of segregated faculties within the North—stays related immediately. Wright had a distinguished educational profession at Howard University from 1940 until her demise in 1962, serving as ebook evaluation editor for the Journal of Negro Schooling and creating the university’s scholar advising program. In 1953, she helped draft a quick for the NAACP supporting the prosecution in Brown v. Board of Schooling, the U.S. Supreme Courtroom choice that mandated faculty integration nationally, jump-starting the civil rights motion.
Behind these illustrious credits, nevertheless, Marion Thompson Wright had a deeply troubled life. All black People of her time suffered beneath Jim Crow; Wright also handled what the civil rights activist Pauli Murray referred to as “Jane Crow,” or the bounds placed on black ladies in a patriarchal society.
Most of her educational colleagues by no means knew it, but early in her studies, Wright had confronted a heartrending determination: abandoning her husband and two youngsters to pursue her profession. Her acts as a teenage mother shadowed Wright for the rest of her life and finally led to her suicide. Wright’s struggles mirror the sacrifices that many lower-class black ladies of her place and time had to make in the event that they hoped to comply with a path to professional success.
Wright was born Marion Manola Thompson in East Orange, New Jersey, on September 13, 1902. Her mother and father have been Moses B. Thompson, a laborer, and Minnie B. Holmes Thompson, a domestic, and she or he had three siblings. Someday between 1910 and 1915, Moses Thompson disappeared.
Marion went to high school in Newark, New Jersey, and excelled, but then abruptly dropped out in her junior yr to marry William Henry Moss of Montclair, New Jersey. The rationale for the hasty marriage turned apparent on January 2, 1919, when a daughter, Thelma Mae Moss, was born. Within six months, Marion was pregnant again, and she or he gave delivery to a son, James Allen Moss, on March 27, 1920.
The burdens of parenting created pressure within the younger couple’s relationship, and the pair quarreled typically about Marion’s ambitions. To make amends for her high school studies, Marion attended faculty full-time in the course of the day and took courses at night time at Drake’s School, an area enterprise faculty. Alongside a heavy educational load, Thompson threw herself into highschool activities, serving on the board of the Epilogue and the Acropolis, the student-run magazines, and becoming a member of the science membership, glee club, and cheering squad.
The allure of faculty pushed her away from her household. In October 1921, as her father had achieved a decade earlier, she vanished from her family, by no means to return. In the future in 1922, her husband spotted her in a crowd at Lincoln Park in Newark. William beseeched Marion to return again, however, as he claimed in his divorce go well with towards her, “She finally stated she could not be bothered with the duty of youngsters.”
William Moss didn’t realize it then, but Marion Moss had dropped her married identify. She graduated from high school close to the top of her class in 1923 and was accepted with a full scholarship at Howard College in Washington, D.C. Howard did not settle for married ladies or ladies with youngsters, which was widespread apply on the time. So, Thompson reclaimed her maiden identify, took three years off her age, and forsook all references to her husband and youngsters when she enrolled there in the fall of 1923.
When William Moss discovered that his spouse had turn out to be a scholar at Howard, he sent her, as part of the divorce proceedings he had initiated, a registered letter asking her to return residence and look after the youngsters. Thompson wrote again that she was “prepared and shall do all I can for the youngsters,” however that coming back was “completely unattainable.” It will not be greatest, she explained, for the youngsters to reside in a house the place “no affection or respect exists between the mother and father.” Any love that she felt toward William, Thompson added, “died way back”—and if he didn’t understand that before, Thompson hoped it might be “clear to you now.”
On September 21, 1925, William Moss was granted an uncontested divorce from Marion Thompson and gained full custody of the youngsters. He quickly remarried. Thompson wrote in a letter dated round 1939 to her son James that she felt after the divorce that “the whole lot was settled with out my being in [the children’s] future … I then set up my objectives and labored towards them.”
In the report of the divorce proceedings, Marion Thompson comes across as heartless and detached to her family—but leaving them to resume her studies, whereas harsh, had been an existential selection between domesticity and ambition. It was one which many other professional ladies, then and now, have additionally needed to make. Thompson surveyed her surroundings and noticed dim prospects for a lady with two youngsters and no highschool diploma; poorly paid and demeaning work as the servant of white individuals, a job her mom had endured, was the doubtless future. Thompson knew that faculty provided personal joy. House didn’t.
Howard University represented the height of black educational achievement and a pathway to success, and Washington, D.C., was house to the nation’s black political elite: professionals, politicians, and prosperous households who upheld a strict set of social mores. Younger black undergraduate ladies have been anticipated to be moral and ladylike above being feminist. Chastity was the litmus check for a younger lady’s status and served as a class and cultural wedge between middle-class school ladies and their classmates from poorer black households.
When Thompson started at Howard, she tried to keep her previous underneath wraps. She had been the “goal of so many insulting proposals from men as to be nauseating,” she informed her son James as he entered adulthood. And if males knew her story, she apprehensive that they might regard her as “sexually skilled and obtainable.”
Thompson surveyed her surroundings and noticed dim prospects for a lady with two youngsters and no high school diploma; poorly paid and demeaning work because the servant of white individuals, a job her mom had endured, was the possible future. Thompson knew that faculty provided private pleasure. House didn’t.
She found a mentor in Lucy Diggs Slowe, Howard’s first Dean of Ladies. Slowe was a part of the New Negro Womanhood that emphasized management in social affairs, voluntarism, club membership, activism towards common suffrage, and the democratic promise of schooling for all black individuals. Beneath Slowe’s steerage, Thompson plunged into school life. By the autumn of her sophomore yr, she had been elected to the Howard College Scholar Council and served as recording secretary for her class. As a junior, Thompson turned president of the Ladies’s League at Howard, a newly shaped membership that lent help to the Howard football staff and set up a mortgage fund for needy female college students, amongst different tasks. The same yr, she was elected to Kappa Mu, Howard’s educational honor society, and joined Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority that emphasised public service.
However Thompson all the time nervous that folks would find out about her past—and ultimately, individuals did, with some mudslingers implying that both of her youngsters have been illegitimate. As an alternative of telling the world of her failed marriage, Thompson determined to “get alongside” by sticking to her formidable objectives and ignoring gossip and her sorrow. When the tattling escalated in 1927, Thompson advised Slowe her secrets. Slowe asked to see Thompson’s marriage license and divorce decree. Then she informed Thompson to say nothing further.
Marion Thompson graduated from Howard magna cum laude in 1927 and easily might have found employment as a faculty instructor in a black faculty anyplace in america. Slowe, who sought to open younger educated ladies to broader prospects, had inspired her to assume greater. Most college-educated black ladies turned academics, nevertheless it was a tough and lonely life. Black academics have been underpaid, labored in troublesome circumstances, had little or no contact with their white counterparts, and have been typically resented by poorer blacks. Few married. So, Thompson chose to stay at Howard, earning a Grasp’s diploma in schooling in June 1928.
Thompson ultimately moved on to Columbia University, attaining candidacy in 1931 for a doctorate in historical past. The identical yr, she returned to Newark and married Arthur Wright, a postal clerk, and in 1937, the Wrights bought a house in middle-class Montclair, New Jersey. Wright transferred into the graduate program at Academics School at Columbia, finished her doctorate, and rejoined Howard University’s schooling department in 1940.
Howard’s illustrious male school included sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, poet Sterling A. Brown, thinker Alain Locke, and historian Rayford Logan; Wright additionally joined female scholars comparable to political scientist Merze Tate and librarian Dorothy Porter. Quickly Wright, too, rose as a tutorial star. Howard students adored her—she paid shut consideration to their private needs—and her colleagues admired and valued her, which was no small accomplishment in an in any other case all-male department. In 1950, Wright was promoted to full professor.
Wright’s life in Washington might seem charmed. She lived in a cushty condo in Washington’s Adams Morgan district, adorned her residence with porcelain figures of horses, and enjoyed embroidering her identify on handkerchiefs. Wright treated herself to expensive diamond rings from a New Jersey jeweler and spent a number of months traveling in Europe within the mid-1950s. She joined educational organizations, gave public lectures, and worshipped at the Plymouth Congregational Church (now the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ), recognized for its abolitionist history in the district. She divorced Arthur Wright, although he continued to reside in Montclair together with her mother.
But beneath her polished, skilled demeanor, Wright suffered from severe melancholy and nervousness. Her troublesome selections weighed on her. Now that she was a professor, her marital status shouldn’t have mattered, but if Mordecai Johnson, the autocratic, socially conservative president of Howard, ever discovered that she had lied as an undergraduate, she would have been terminated instantly.
After attaining success, Wright had hoped to be extra a part of her youngsters’s lives. But Wright’s protector Lucy Diggs Slowe had died prematurely in 1937. So, to take care of her cowl, Wright maintained distance from her youngsters. As they matured and became profitable adults, she stored them secret from even her closest associates. Theodora Daniels, with whom Wright traveled extensively, knew concerning the youngsters however understood that she should never ask about them. Moments akin to when an undergraduate rushed up to Wright in a hallway at Howard, exclaiming, “I didn’t know you have been Jimmy’s mother!” created terror for her.
Her first makes an attempt to reconcile together with her youngsters in the 1930s had been futile. Her youngsters have been understandably upset about her absence from their lives, however being more current, as they needed, might have upended her profession. The most effective policy, she advised her son in a letter around 1939, was “for me to utterly withdraw.” There have been ways, she admonished her son James, that “you made it more and more troublesome for me to work with you, so for the time, I gave up.” What, she asked her son, would he have finished in the identical circumstances? Only in 1953, after her personal dying mom urged her to reopen relations with the youngsters, did Wright attain out to them. There were clandestine meetings through the years, but repairing the household remained unimaginable. On October 26, 1962, Marion Thompson Wright committed suicide by asphyxiating herself in her vehicle.
At the moment, Wright is commemorated with a lecture in her identify, held each February at Rutgers College-Newark. It’s the most prestigious black studies celebration in New Jersey and one of many largest in the nation. Within the 1980s, her youngsters James and Thelma attended the occasion, and in 1989, the yr before his dying, James gave a stirring account of his mom’s position within the writing of black historical past. At present, guests to the Marion Thompson Wright lecture can learn a short bio of her on the program. As they do, they could mirror on the terrible sacrifices she made to create a greater America.
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