February 1, 1870 – First African American Man Elected to Serve on a State Supreme Court

Jonathan J. Wright, born in 1840 in Pennsylvania, saved up money by working for neighborhood farmers, and attended the Lancasterian University at Ithaca, in New York State. Afterward he returned to Pennsylvania and entered the office of a law firm, where he read law for two years, supporting himself by teaching. He subsequently read law for another year in the office of Judge Collins, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He applied for admission to the Bar but the committee refused to examine him because of racial prejudice.

In April 1865, Wright was sent by the American Missionary Society to Beaufort, South Carolina, as a teacher and laborer among the freed slaves. He remained in Beaufort until the Civil Rights Act passed and then returned to Montrose, Pennsylvania, and demanded an examination for the Bar. The Committee found him qualified. He was accepted on April 13, 1865, and was the first African American admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania.

In April 1866, Wright was appointed by General Oliver Otis Howard as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Beaufort, to be the legal adviser for the freedmen. In July 1868 he was elected to the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina. He was the convention vice-president and helped draft the judiciary section of the state constitution, which still holds today.

On this day in history, he was elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court, becoming the first African American to serve on a state supreme court. He held the position for seven years, until the white Democrats regained control of state government in 1877. Wright left the Court and entered into private practice in Charleston. He died in 1885.



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