Nathan Wright

Rev. Dr. Nathan Wright Jr. with his book, Black Power and Urban Unrest in Orange, N.J., 1967. (AP Photo)

Nathan Wright was born August 5, 1923 in Shreveport, LA and raised in Cincinnati, OH. His mother was a teacher, and his father, an insurance salesman, was head of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. In his twenties, after having served in the Army during World War II, Wright became active in struggles for civil rights in his hometown and beyond. In 1946, while a student at the University of Cincinnati, Wright became the focal point of protests after he was randomly stopped and searched by police officers. The next year, he took part in the Journey of Reconciliation, an interstate bus ride through the South, led by the Congress of Racial Equality, to test Supreme Court’s 1946 decision in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia outlawing segregation in interstate travel.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Wright earned a doctoral degree from Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, MA and was ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1950. While a minister in Boston, Wright became friends with Louis Walcott, a parishioner who would later be known as Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. During his time in Boston, Wright also served as the New England field representative for CORE and served on the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights.

In 1964, Wright became the Executive Director of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark’s Department of Urban Work. When Wright arrived in Newark, the Civil Rights Movement in the city and the nation was reaching a fever pitch as urban rebellions swept the northeast and campaigns for political power swelled in the South. Calls for “Black Power” raised by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1966 marked a new direction in the Civil Rights Movement and set the stage for Wright’s advocacy of Black Power in Newark. Wright is perhaps best remembered for his role in heading the National Conference on Black Power, which was held in Newark just days after the 1967 rebellion.

Nathan Wright (left) at the Black Power Conference in Newark on July 20, 1967. At right is Omar Ahmed of CORE. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

As chairman of the conference committee, Wright sought to organize a national gathering that would bring together national advocates of Black Power to explore the possibilities of Black Power for unifying and empowering Black Americans. The conference brought together over 1,000 participants, including H. Rap Brown, James Farmer, Jesse Jackson, Floyd McKissick, Amiri Baraka, and others representing hundreds of organizations and cities. Speaking to the Conference, Wright said, “After the so-called riots people must be given hope. Others outside the black community must not set an agenda for black redemption. The black community as a whole– which shares a common oppression– must set its own agenda as a whole.”

Wright, an avid scholar and author, wrote two books on the Black Power movement: Black Power and Urban Unrest (1967) and Ready to Riot (1968). In 1969, Wright became the founding chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at SUNY Albany. He remained in academia for many years, while also serving on presidential task forces in the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

References:

Martin Schiesl, “Wright, Nathan Jr. (1923-2005), www.blackpast.org

“Black-Power Leader Nathan Wright Jr. Dies,” Washington Post, March 6, 2005.

Who’s Coming In, Who’s Going Out?

World War II kicked off the second Great Migration, as African Americans from the South sought better living conditions in Newark and other cities. Between 1940 and 1950, the African American population of Newark increased from 45,760 to 74,965—growing from 10.7% to 17.2% of the city’s total population. In many ways, this population influx marked a tipping point for recognition.

For most of Newark, the depression ended. “Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job. The New Jersey Afro-American wrote in 1941 that while contracts for nearly a billion and a half dollars in government defense orders have been placed with firms in New Jersey, the Urban League finds that these firms have steadfastly refused to hire colored workers.”

 

————
“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
————

 

But some African Americans did find employment. Jobs for blacks in the Newark defense workforce improved from 4% in 1942, to 8.8% in 1943. With the overall economy booming, Newark’s downtown stores began hiring some African Americans as elevator operators and janitors. Large restaurants hired blacks as chefs, cooks and waiters—they could work, but not sit down to eat. The war years helped enhance the prospects of some, while still denying prosperity for the many.

Whites Begin to Leave

Around 1947, the white middle class started deserting Newark for the suburbs, along with the businesses that sustained them. The post World-War II boom was good for businesses for a while, but factories, schools, and streets had been neglected during the war. Overcrowding was a problem, especially in the ghettos. These conditions made the suburbs very attractive as alternatives to Newark.

The G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA loans made it easier for whites to buy a house, and brand new highways built by the federal government with taxpayers’ dollars made it easier to drive those new automobiles to the suburbs, in Essex County and further west. These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.

 

————
These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
————

 

But Newark’s heterogeneous ethnic character remained intact in the early and mid-1950s. Newark was described as follows by writer Joseph Conforti:

The Germans had given way to the Irish who in 1950 shared political power with an Italian and a Jew. The ethnic division of the city could also be observed less directly. Many occupations were ethnically identifiable: the police and fire departments were overwhelmingly Irish; the construction trades were Italian; the merchants were largely Jewish, the small luncheonettes were Greek, the large businesses were owned and operated by WASPs, skilled craftsmen were likely to be German, and the factory operatives were Irish, Polish and Italian. Even the city’s taxicabs had ethnic identifications…yellow cabs were operated by the Irish, 20th Century cabs by Jews, Brown and White cabs by Italians, and Green cabs by blacks.

Newark’s Changing Demographics

Ghettoization continued in Newark. By 1940, the Third Ward (today’s Central Ward) alone contained more than 16,000 black residents. By 1944 nearly one third of the apartments and housing in the black areas were below the standards of minimum decency. Some houses still had outside bathrooms.

The slums were among the worst in the nation. The situation was particularly grim for African Americans, clustered on “the hill” just west of the Essex County Court House. Public Housing did not help a lot. There were 7 low-income projects finished before the war, but by 1946, there were 2,110 white families and only 623 black families in the buildings. Four of the projects housed no black people. The best low-rise public housing, such as Bradley Court, was reserved for whites; while the poorest units, such as F.D.R. Homes, were reserved for blacks. Ultimately, the majority of African Americans were steered into the growing number of high rise public housing which just happened to be built in the center city where black people had been confined beginning at the turn of the 20th century.

 

————
Four of the projects housed no black people.
————

 

The 1950 Census showed the trend in population increases for blacks, and decrease by whites. Newark’s total population rose only slightly from 429,760 in 1940 to 438,776 in 1950. Black residents had increased from 45,760 to 74,965—more than a 60% increase. When newspapers took a look at the faces of misery, increasingly they were black.

Even though the city began hemorrhaging jobs (250 manufacturers left between 1950-60; 1,300 manufactures left during the 1960s), the more dramatic change in the city’s socioeconomic structure was the rapidly changing composition of the city’s population.

African Americans were rapidly become politically and economically obsolete in a city where they would soon be in the majority. Segregation and discrimination by race and class defined Newark’s offering to the city’s newest immigrants.

Listen to the people speak about their experiences as newcomers to Newark below…

Nathan Wright reflects upon the 1967 National Conference on Black Power, held in Newark just days after the 1967 rebellion. Wright was chairman of the conference committee.  — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Invitation to Black Power Conference Planning Committee

Invitation to Black Power Conference Planning Committee

View Document

Invitation from Dr. Nathan Wright to serve as a member of the National Planning Committee for the National Conference on Black Power, held in Newark from July 20-23, 1967. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Black Power: Key to National Fulfillment

Black Power: Key to National Fulfillment

View Document

Speech presented by Nathan Wright at the July, 1967 National Conference on Black Power in Newark, titled “Black Power: Key to National Fulfillment.” — Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

View Document

Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

View Document

A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

View Document

A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

View Document

Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG