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Wright, Theodore Sedgwick

Wright, Theodore Sedgwick

March 25, 1847

Theodore Wright, a Presbyterian clergyman and abolitionist, was born in New Jersey, the son of Richard P. G. Wright, who was prominent in the early anticolonization protests and the antislavery movement. Theodore received instruction from Samuel E. Cornish (17951858) at New York City's African Free School. When he continued his studies at Princeton Seminary, he remained in contact with his mentor and served as an agent for Cornish's newspaper, Freedom's Journal. Wright shared his father's anticolonization sentiment, and he coauthored with Cornish an anticolonization pamphlet, The Colonization Scheme Considered (1840).

Wright succeeded Cornish as pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City in 1828, and he nurtured his church into the second largest African-American congregation in the city. The principles of moral reform informed his thought and activities. He created a temperance society as an auxiliary to his church. He founded the Phoenix Society, an organization dedicated to "morals, literature and the mechanical arts." He also promoted black education through his work with the Phoenix High School for Colored Youth.

Wright's commitment to abolitionism drew him to several black organizations. He participated in the New York Committee of Vigilance in the mid-1830s. A pioneer in the long, frustrating campaign to expand black suffrage in the state, he cofounded the New York Association for the Political Elevation and Improvement of the People of Color (1838) and attended the black state convention at Albany in 1840. Occasionally, Wright revealed a streak of militancy. At the 1843 national convention in Buffalo, New York, he surprised many delegates by supporting Henry Highland Garnet's (18151882) call for slave violence.

Wright had a highly visible role in the organized anti-slavery movement. He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and was one of the few blacks to hold a seat on the society's executive committee. He also participated in the New York State Anti-Slavery Society. Through his work in these organizations, he became aware of the subtle racism present among white reformers, and he chastised them publicly for their failure to "annihilate in their own bosom the cord of caste."

Like many black clergymen, Wright was never comfortable with the radical social doctrines of the Garrisonians. When these issues precipitated a schism in the AASS, Wright, along with several other black abolitionists, abandoned the old organization in favor of the new American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Wright served on the new society's executive committee, and embraced political abolitionism as an active supporter of the Liberty Party in the early 1840s.

In his last years of public life, Wright devoted his efforts to African missions. He joined with several other black clergymen to found the Union Missionary Society in 1841; he later served as a vice president of the American Missionary Society.

See also Abolition; Cornish, Samuel E.; Freedom's Journal ; Garnet, Henry Highland; Presbyterians


Swift, David E. "Black Presbyterian Attacks on Racism: Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright and Their Contemporaries." Journal of Presbyterian History 51 (1973): 433470.

michael f. hembree (1996)

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