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Wright, Edward Herbert(1863–1930) - Politician, Chronology, Political Power Broker

african american county position

Unlike many African American politicians who were stifled by segregation and unequal access, Edward Herbert Wright was able to use his sharp legal and political abilities and his influence in the Republican Party to become the first African American committeeman in the Second Ward of Chicago Illinois. As complex and layered as the Chicago political machine was, Wright was able to effectively work with white politicians to secure opportunities and appointments for qualified persons in the African American community. He was firm in his resolve and steadfast in championing a cause or appointment. As an able and respected lawyer Wright saw his political role as crucial to the successful of his people. He used this philosophy as the basis for his activities with all of his political activities. Although he served for only six years as a committeeman, his political know-how, his conscious goals of aiding the African American community, and his reputation as a man of his word allowed Edward H. Wright to bring much needed change in the white landscape of Chicago politics.

Though his parents have not been identified, historians know that Edward Herbert Wright was born on September 28, 1863 in New York City, New York. The desire to learn was for him a motivating factor from the beginning. He graduated from public school and went on to the College of the City of New York. After graduating in 1881 at seventeen years of age Wright taught in New Jersey for three years. Chicago became Wright’s next stop as he arrived in the city in 1884, penniless and looking for opportunities. An industrious person, he earned his way to Chicago by assisting a Pullman porter, working in a real estate office, and working in the registry department of the post office. His energy and forcefulness attracted the attention of others, including Republican politicians. Wright was later hired in the county clerk’s office. Wright was six feet tall, dark-skinned, heavy, and slow-spoken.

When the Republican National Convention came to Chicago in 1888, Wright was an active participant. He was rewarded for his commitment in 1890 with the position of bookkeeper and railroad incorporation clerk in the secretary of state’s office in Springfield, Illinois. This position was the first clerical position to be held by an African American in state government. When the term of the person who appointed Wright ended, Wright returned to the city clerk’s office for two years. He was then elected in 1895 for a one-year term as South Town clerk. Over the years Wright continued his activities in the Republican Party and helped Theodore W. Jones secure the nomination for county commissioner. This activity gave Wright the insight and connections that made possible his nomination for county commissioner in 1896. Wright was successful in being elected to the position as county commissioner for the city, the third African American to do so. He also was admitted to the bar the same year.

Chronology

1863

Born in New York on September 28

1881

Graduates from the College of the City of New York

1884

Moves to Chicago

1890

Appointed to clerical position in state government

1895

Wins election as south town clerk

1896

Admitted to the bar; serves as county commissioner of Cook County

1915

Appointed by the mayor as assistant corporation counsel of the city of Chicago

1919

Appointed special attorney for the Traction Commission

1920

Elected first African American ward committeeman, Second Ward, Republican

1927

Ends political career

1930

Dies in Rochester, Minnesota on August 6

As county commissioner Wright was not reluctant to capitalize on and create opportunities that brought African Americans into the political system. On one occasion he held up the appropriation for the office of the state’s attorney Charles S. Deneen to secure an assistant’s position for an African American. His maneuver resulted in the placement of Ferdinand L. Barnett as the first African American assistant state’s attorney for Cook County. Deneen’s appropriation was subsequently passed after the appointment was made. Wright was re-elected as county commissioner in 1898. On another occasion when the president of the commission was away for a short time, Wright secured his own place as president pro-tem by seeking support from the thirteen members. He advised each that he did not expect to be elected but wanted one or two votes to show as a sign of recognition. He received all the votes except two and secured the position. At the end of his second term as county commissioner, however, Wright failed to receive a nomination and floundered in the political system for fifteen years.

Wright had some difficult times once his position as county commissioner ended. He attempted to capitalize on other Republican opportunities but without success. For example, he attempted in vain in 1910 to be elected to the city council. In spite of these difficulties, Wright continued to agitate for race recognition on the various political bodies and stirred up discussion in regular Republican ward meetings. Finally in 1915 he had the opportunity to be active in politics with the campaign and election of William Hale Thompson for mayor of Chicago. Wright assisted in getting pledge cards for Thompson. Once Thompson was elected Wright was appointed as an assistant corporation counsel at a salary well above any other African American appointee. With the indictment and trial of Alderman Oscar DePriest in 1917, Wright took over the role as the outstanding African American organization leader for Thompson’s campaigns for senator in 1918 and mayor in 1919. Wright was rewarded again in 1919 as one of the attorneys for the Traction Commission.

Political Power Broker

When the primary for the 1920 Republican committeeman of the Second Ward was announced, Wright was nominated for the position. He was supported by Thompson and the Republican Party, which assured his election. Wright easily won the seat and became the first African American to hold this influential position. Committeemen had the power to nominate certain judges and to send representatives to conventions. Wright, who had clearly shown himself as race conscious, forceful, and shrewd, took this as an opportunity to advance the African American community just as he had done as county commissioner. Even though the law that allowed his election was later declared unconstitutional, Wright remained the recognized leader of the Second Ward committeemen and head of the Thompson forces. Over the six years that Wright was in office he successfully negotiated jobs and legislative favors from white politicians. With the voting block of the so-called black belt firmly behind him, Wright had the influence to request and support appointments. Under Wright’s leadership Chicago saw blacks appointed as state senator, municipal judge, and state representative. Thompson as mayor was well aware of this tide, having campaigned for African Americans. After Thompson’s retirement in 1923, Wright was still able to secure other important appointments. In 1924, he accomplished one of his greatest political feats by getting Albert George elected as municipal judge.

When Thompson decided to seek re-election in 1926 as mayor, he and Wright had a disagreement over the nomination for a committeeman seat in First Ward. Wright lost out and his political slide began. Well aware of the consequences, Wright determined not to support Thompson in his campaign and stated that he was not a political slave. He reiterated that he had been elected by his people and had no intentions of selling them out. Wright’s candidate lost and he left the political scene by choice.

Wright as a politician was aggressive in race matters, strict in discipline, and loyal to his word at all costs. Many saw Wright as a race hero because he did not bow and scrape and give in to white politicians. He had no inferiority complex even though the segregated times assumed he should. Wright won the respect of both his white and black colleagues. Although the exact cause of his death is not known, Edward Herbert Wright died August 6, 1930 at Colonial Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

Wright, Frank Lloyd - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Frank Lloyd Wright, Social and Economic Impact [next]

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