The first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history in the United States, Marion Thompson Wright, was born on Sept. 13, 1905 in East Orange, New Jersey. Wright, who also was the first African American historian to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University, was one of two black students at Newark’s Barringer High School during her attendance.
At age 16, Wright married and had two children. She and her husband later separated, and Wright returned to high school and graduated at the top of her class (she divorced her first husband sometime in the 1920s). Wright earned an academic scholarship to Howard University and was very involved at Howard, serving as a Student Council representative for four years and representing the women of Howard at the National Collegiate World Court Conference, according to Hilton Kelly’s piece on Wright. In 1927, she finished her undergraduate degree and received a Masters of Arts in history and education the next year.
In 1931, Wright began working on a doctorate degree at Teachers College, which has been part of Columbia University since 1898. After nine years, she finished her Ph.D. with a dissertation titled The Education of Negroes in New Jersey, a truly impressive feat considering she had been simultaneously supporting herself and her children as a social worker for Newark’s welfare department during the Great Depression.
Wright became an associate professor at Howard in 1946, and a full professor in 1950. In the 1950s, much of her research and writing focused on the historical experiences of African Americans in New Jersey. In addition, her published work and research helped provide NAACP attorneys with data that led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to overturn “separate but equal schools,” according to New Jersey’s Women’s History.
As part of her legacy, the 37th annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series takes place on Feb. 18 at the Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. Admission to New Jersey’s oldest and largest Black History Month conference is free, and “City Moves: Black Urban History Since 1967” is the focus of this year’s program.