On several occasions, it has been my pleasure to salute some of the relatively unknown members of the famed Niagara Movement (1905–1909), which—as many of readers know—had a short but significant timeline that morphed into the NAACP. Invariably, the next words following a mention of this movement is W.E.B. Du Bois, since he was the prime mover and a founding member.
The male advocates of the seminal civil rights group included Clement Morgan, but his wife, Gertrude, should be given more attention, not only for her pivotal role in this formation but in a few others. Born in 1861 in Springfield, Illinois, Gertrude was the daughter of Thomas Wright and Sarah Fortune Wright. Her father was a formerly enslaved person who bought himself and later his son out of bondage. The condition of her mother and other siblings was not available.
But we do know that Gertrude was the first African American student at Springfield High School, where she was forced to endure daily insults and shunning from the white students. She was fortunate, however, to have at least one white student, Hattie Palmer, comfort her and walk with her to school. In 1877, Gertrude graduated and was ranked third in her class and presented a paper about “Unknown Heroes.” According to one report, she was also the first Black person to graduate in all of Illinois.
Gertrude applied to become a teacher in her hometown, but Blacks were not allowed to teach in the schools there. Unable to pursue her profession in Springfield, she moved to St. Louis and secured a position at Charles Sumner High School, an all-Black school. Her future husband, Clement, also taught there and after their marriage in 1897, they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they began their activist careers. Along with his activism, Clement became the first African American to deliver Harvard’s senior class oration, and the first Black elected a city alderman anywhere in New England. Thus, you gather some notion of what a remarkable duo they were.
They both became members of the Niagara Movement, which was merely one of the organizations that benefited from Gertrude’s commitment. She later became instrumental in founding the NAACP and played a prominent role in the suffrage moment and the fight for women’s rights. In addition to these activities, she served as president of the Women’s Era Club, was on the board of the Harriet Tubman House and was appointed by Gov. Cox to represent the Commonwealth at the dedication of the Frederick Douglass House Museum in 1922. And we should note that she was a tireless worker to get the 19th Amendment passed to give women the right to vote.
In 2020, the Cambridge Historical Commission, the city council and community members named two cross streets in honor of Gertrude and of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous slave narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in 1861, the same year Gertrude was born. The streets were the first in Cambridge named after Black women with ties to the city. At the ceremony, her great-great-nephew, Dr. James Spencer, said, “A lot of people didn’t know about my great-great-aunt Gertrude (although) my family had been trying for years to talk about her,” he said. “So now she is no longer an unsung hero. She’s somebody having a street named after her at Cambridge Crossing, and her family is so proud.” He was making reference to the paper she had written back in high school.
From either his Twitter or Facebook page, Spencer added this information about his remarkable family and their achievements: “I was in Springfield about 8 years ago and supplied the library with pictures and deeds that I had about my family (The Wrights). I gave the library My Grandfather’s World War L diary believed to be the only one written by an African American for that war. I plan to come back again to solve the family mystery of how my great, great grandfather Tom Wright (Gertrude’s Father) became so rich. My grandfather Bruce Wright born in Springfield was the son of Willis Wright (Gertrude’s Brother) and Mamie Drake Wright supposedly a teacher there in Springfield who died about 1906. Both of his parents deceased, Bruce and his sister Nadine came here to live with Gertrude and her husband. Nadine was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Radcliffe and one of the first African American teachers here in Cambridge.”
Gertrude died in 1931, two years after her husband’s death.