December 2002

Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright

South Carolina Supreme Court Justice

Jonathan Jasper Wright was born in 1840 and during his career became the first African-American to achieve positions in many aspects of the legal field including the South Carolina Supreme Court. He attended Lancasterian University and, upon completing his study of law, attempted to stand the Pennsylvania bar. Unable to do so, presumably because of his race, Wright accepted a position in Beaufort, South Carolina, teaching newly freed slaves. He also gave lectures on legal and political matters and provided legal advice. These activities drew criticism from some in Beaufort. Wright answered by saying, ‘Had I been content to settle down and been what the masses of white persons desired of me (a bootblack, a barber, or a hotel waiter), I would have been heard of less.’ After the Civil Rights Bill was passed, Wright again petitioned the authorities in Pennsylvania to take the bar. His request was granted. He was admitted to the bar and became the first African-American licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania. Later, he returned to South Carolina as legal advisor to General Howard and was the first African-American to practice law in South Carolina. In July 1868, Wright was elected as a delegate to South Carolina’s constitutional convention. In this position he played a major role in shaping the provisions relating to the judiciary. In the first election in which freedmen could vote, Wright was elected as senator from Beaufort County. Shortly after his election to Congress, an opening occurred on the South Carolina Supreme Court. The position was sought by William Whipper, a House member, and Wright, a Senator. Wright was chosen to fill the position – the first African-American elected to any appeals court in the nation. As associate justice of the Supreme Court, Wright wrote 87 opinions that were recognized for their clear thinking and solid basis in common law. Charges were made concerning Wright’s conduct after Wade Hampton was elected Governor of South Carolina. Although these allegations appear to have been entirely fabricated, Wright saw that he would be forced from the Supreme Court and submitted his resignation. Wright relocated to Charleston, set up a law practice, taught classes from his office, established Claflin College’s law department, and served as college trustee. For many years after Justice Wright’s death from tuberculosis, his reputation was subjected to suspicion, racism, and neglect. Even official portraits of the Justice could no longer be found. A century after his death the South Carolina Supreme Court did rectify his stature. On two occasions within the past four years, South Carolina Supreme Court justices bestowed belated honor on Justice Wright. In 1997, the justices celebrated Wright’s service to the court by unveiling a rare 1870 portrait of him that had been published in Harper’s magazine. Last year, a granite grave marker was unveiled. During that ceremony, Chief Justice Ernest Finney, Jr., stated, “[Wright’s] election to the supreme court marked a high point in a celebrated career of public service, as a teacher, a lawyer, and as a statesman.”