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Wright, Jonathan Jasper(1840–1885) - Lawyer, judge, politician, Career as Associate Justice, Chronology

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Jonathan Jasper Wright was an educator, lawyer, senator, and state supreme court justice during the era of Reconstruction in South Carolina. He distinguished himself as the first black admitted to the Pennsylvania state bar, one of three blacks admitted to the South Carolina bar, and the first black justice elected to a state supreme court.

Jonathan Jasper Wright was born on February 11, 1840 in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Even though slavery was still in existence he is believed to have been born to free parents. There is no knowledge of his mother, but his father was a Pennsylvania farmer who relocated the family to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. After his matriculation from Lancasterian Academy at Ithaca, New York in 1860, Wright studied law and taught school in Pennsylvania.

In 1864 Wright was a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York. The convention’s platform was to refute slavery, support every man’s right to vote, and sanction racial equality for all people. The convention was chaired by former slave and present orator and reformer Frederick Douglass.

In 1865 the American Missionary Society sent Wright to Beaufort, South Carolina to organize schools for colored people. While there he taught newly freed slaves and soldiers of the 128th U.S. Colored Troops basic academic subjects, lectured on religion and self-control, and became a legal advisor. A year later Wright returned to Pennsylvania and became the first black admitted to the bar in that state. Soon after that achievement, he returned to South Carolina to work for the Freedman’s Bureau. In that position he served as a legal advisor to former slaves and to the bureau’s commanding officer. He resigned from the position in 1868. Within the same year Wright, Robert Brown Elliot, and William Whipper became the first three black men admitted to the South Carolina bar.

With an interest in politics, Wright joined the Republican Party and remained a moderate in his political views throughout his career. In 1868 he was elected a member of the South Carolina state constitutional convention. The convention’s purpose was to assemble and renew constitutional and public government to the state. During this time Wright implored the Republican Party to nominate a black man for vice president of the United States.

Wright did not believe in lifetime appointments for judges nor was he in favor of public school integration. He favored fixed terms or no more than ten years for an elected judge. As for public school integration, he was concerned about education but was convinced that black and white children would not want to attend school with each other. Also in 1868, Wright was elected state senator from Beaufort, South Carolina. He was respected by fellow senators, who found him intelligent and articulate.

Career as Associate Justice

In 1870, at age thirty, Wright was named a justice of the South Carolina state supreme court by the legislature. He was elected to fulfill an unexpired term of Solomon L. Hoge who had been elected to serve in Congress. He was then re-elected for a full term of six years thus serving seven years as a justice. That same year other blacks rose to prominent positions in the state. The positions of lieutenant governor, treasurer, speaker of the house, and three congressional seats were all held by black men. Soon after his election to the state supreme court, Avery College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bestowed upon Wright an honorary LL.D. While on the court bench, Wright participated in 425 cases, wrote 87, and dissented in only one case.

In 1876 Wright faced a major career crisis when two rival candidates, Democrat Wade Hampton and Republican Daniel Chamberlain, each claimed the governor’s election. Hampton’s supporters were identified as white supremacists and Chamberlain was supported by blacks and moderate whites. In a case that involved the release of a prisoner, Hampton established himself as the official governor by issuing the pardon. The case was brought before the supreme court for associate justices Wright and A. J. Willard to decide because at that time Chief Justice Moses was gravely ill. Each justice ruled in favor of the pardon, thus recognizing Hampton as the legal governor.

Two days after the court decision, Wright attempted to revoke his opinion and the prisoner’s pardon. His request was not honored, the order was upheld by the court, and Hampton was affirmed as the governor. Wright’s actions became questionable and numerous rumors began to circulate. It was believed that he received threats from both political parties. Accusations of bribery and intoxication by Wright also surfaced. Wright’s judicial career was tainted and ended abruptly. A Democratic investigating committee appointed by the legislature brought impeachment charges of corruption against Wright. Those charges were unfounded and after the Democratic Party regained control of the state government, Wright resigned from the state supreme court as an associate judge in 1877.



Born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on February 11


Graduates from Lancasterian Academy


Serves as delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men, Syracuse, New York


Organizes schools for newly freed slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina


Admitted as first black to the Pennsylvania state bar


Admitted as one of three blacks to the South Carolina bar; elected state senator in Beaufort, South Carolina


Elected first black justice on a state supreme court


Resigns from the state supreme court


Dies in Charleston, South Carolina on February 18

After his resignation, Wright relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, and resumed his law practice. A law department at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina was established under his leadership by the authorization of the board of trustees. He taught law classes and served as a trustee at the university. Wright was never married; he died of tuberculosis at his Charleston home on February 18, 1885.

Wright, Marcia (1935–) - African History [next] [back] Wright, Irene Aloha (1879–1972) - Caribbean History

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