School kids in Detroit in the mid-1960s used to look forward to field trips that included a visit to the Museum of African American History, where they could view such items as the first traffic signal and gas mask invented by Garrett Morgan. If they were lucky, they might also see Dr. Charles H. Wright, who founded the museum.
Back then, the museum was housed in a basement on the city’s west side. Now it stands as one of the great pieces of architecture in the nation, with its vast rotunda and countless artifacts.
Find out more: The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is obviously the first and main place to find out more about the esteemed doctor. Most helpful for me in compiling this profile was a book written by his widow, Dr. Roberta Hughes Wright.
Discussion: What’s to happen with the museum is a pressing issue for many Detroiters. That is, will it be able to survive the current economic crisis? Part of any discussion about the museum’s fate is directly related to the city’s fiscal health and the allocation of funds.
Place in context: A major development that helped the museum come into existence was on the political front. The election of Detroit’s first Black council member and the election of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh were of great benefit to the museum’s creation and stability.
Wright had three obsessions: his medical practice as one of the city’s leading obstetricians and gynecologists; preserving Black history; and the life and legacy of Paul Robeson. The first two things are vitally linked, because many of the children visiting the museum were probably brought into the world by Wright and it was his collection on display. His admiration for Robeson was demonstrated in a number of different ways, none more influential than his book on the man, a roomful of memorabilia and the various tributes he sponsored for his hero.
Ironically, Wright was born on Sept. 20, 1918, in the midst of a Spanish flu epidemic in Dothan, Ala. It wasn’t, however, the epidemic that troubled him, it was the later departure of his older sister to high school. While his parents never finished grade school, they impressed on their children the need for a good and solid education. When his mother told folks that he was going to be a doctor, his fate was sealed.
But soon the siblings were reunited at Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery. As an undergraduate, Wright excelled in all of his courses, though there was one setback when he was dismissed from the campus paper because of an editorial he wrote in opposition to the mounting fascism in Europe. The dismissal was not enough to deny him his achievement as valedictorian of his class when he graduated in 1939.
This Week in Black History
June 15, 1921: Two important firsts occurred on this date—aviatrix Bessie Coleman becomes the first Black person to receive a pilot’s license and Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander becomes the first person to earn a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
June 17, 1871: One of America’s most gifted and versatile writers, James Weldon Johnson, is born on this date in Jacksonville, Fla.
June 19, 1865: Many African-Americans celebrate this date as “Juneteenth” to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in Texas. It was two years after Lincoln’s Proclamation that they learned of their emancipation.
His next academic stop was at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. This was a decisive step in his dream to be a doctor, and with each year at the school, he demonstrated the analytical skills and determination that had characterized his early years.
To pay for his tuition, which was severely limited given the struggle his family’s business was having, he worked as a bellhop in the summer on a ship called the “Greater Detroit,” which plied the rivers and lakes between Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y. This was his first real contact with Detroit, where he would later live and establish his remarkable medical and historical reputation.
In 1943, with a freshly minted medical degree in hand, Wright embarked for Harlem to begin his internship at Harlem Hospital. The community was also a lodestone for African-American history and culture to stimulate his curiosity. Most of his two years at the hospital was spent in the pathology department, which provided both a way for him to avoid military duty and the training he needed after he failed to obtain a position in surgery. By 1945, curious to expand his knowledge in pathology, he acquired a post at Cleveland City Hospital.
Detroit was his next and temporary destination. Almost immediately upon arrival in 1946, he passed the medical license examination and hung his shingle. He quickly realized that there were a large number of sick people in the city with an assortment of ailments. Tuberculosis was among the most pressing illnesses, and there was far too many incidents of infant mortality.
By 1952, Wright was back in Harlem. His dream to practice as an obstetrician and gynecologist became a reality when he was offered such a position at Harlem Hospital. A year later, he was back in his adopted city with his wife, Louise, a native of Chicago and a librarian, whom he had married in 1950.
He was always a good letter writer, and his pen forged an appointment for him on the staff at Women’s Hospital (Hutzel). Black doctors in Detroit had to daily confront a wall of discrimination. If they were lucky to land a spot at a white hospital, they were less likely to have a Black patient, even if rooms were available. Wright, along with his colleagues in the Detroit Medical Society, was not about to sit passively by and allow this obstacle to exist.
The election of Bill Patrick as the first Black to the City Council in 1957 and subsequent election of Jerome Cavanaugh in 1962 ably abetted the doctors’ drive to end the discriminatory policies that prevented the increase of Black doctors at the major hospitals and for them to have their Black patients treated there.
Ending desegregation was often attended by the ending of Black institutions, and Black hospitals were no exception, as Black patients now had an option, and in many instances the white hospitals were better equipped and staffed to provide quality medical care.
Meanwhile, Wright continued to expand his interests, adding travel and the study of African culture to his already crowded agenda. In 1961, he was elected the first president of the African Medical Education Fund. He began to pick up the pen as much as the scalpel, composing his first play, “Were You There?” based on the spiritual of the same name. Three years later, he was traveling through West Africa, part doctor and part amateur anthropologist. It was these trips to Africa, along with the collecting of sculptures and other items, as well as his immersion in the Civil Rights Movement, that provided the impetus for the creation of a museum.
On March 10, 1965, Wright, assembling a coterie of notable Detroiters, had the first organizational meeting, but it took four years of organizing and negotiating before the International Afro-American Museum was incorporated. Getting the museum the notice it deserved took a lot of work and creativity, including some ingenuity from the tireless doctor. He proposed that rather than waiting for visitors to come to the museum—and they only came in a trickle—that some of the artifacts be mounted in a mobile unit and driven through various neighborhoods. Over the succeeding years, the museum continued to grow in membership and projects, fueled mainly by fundraisers. In 1979, the museum’s building fund was established and the buy-a-brick campaign inaugurated.
The museum’s 19th anniversary celebration in 1984 was memorable for its creative format, which included a spectacular concert with an array of Detroit musicians. Since this innovative event, the museum has grown to be one of the most beautiful repositories in the nation, commanding space just the other side of Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.
Fortunately, Wright was around long enough to enjoy the magnificent edifice, a gorgeous building that is symbolic of his contributions to African-American history and culture.
After a series of mini-strokes, the great doctor died on March 7, 2002. Today, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the largest of its kind in the world.
“The present museum houses over 20,000 artifacts and archival materials,” wrote Wright’s widow, Dr. Roberta Hughes Wright.
At the moment, like much of Detroit, the museum is fighting for its life because of a decrease in funding. But the museum, much like its founder, is as much a source of inspiration as it wellspring of resilience.