Jonathan Jasper Wright attended Lancasterian University. Upon completing his legal studies, he attempted to stand the Pennsylvania bar, but it wasn’t allowed, presumably because of his race. Wright accepted a position in Beaufort to open a school and teach the newly freed slaves. In addition to teaching school aged children, he taught the black adult citizens of the community. He lectured every Thursday evening on legal and political matters and also gave legal advice, particularly on labor relations.
After Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1886, Wright again petitioned the authorities in Pennsylvania to allow him to take the bar. His request was granted and he was admitted to the Bar on August 13, 1866. Upon taking the oath, Wright became the first black man licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania.
Wright returned to South Carolina as a legal advisor to General Oliver O. Howard. As such, he was the first black man to practice law in South Carolina. Wright continued in this position until his election as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Wright played a major role in shaping the 1868 constitutional provisions relating to the judiciary.
Wright was then elected as senator from Beaufort County. He was also sworn in as a member of the South Carolina Bar on September 1, 1868. When Solomon Hoge was elected to Congress, an opening occurred on the three member South Carolina Supreme Court. This set up a race between William Whipper, a House member, and Wright, a Senate member. Wright defeated Whipper 72–57. He resigned his Senate seat and was immediately sworn in as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to complete Hoge’s current term. Justice Wright served a seven year tenure on the Supreme Court.
After receiving criticism regarding his opinion in Ex Parte Norris, Justice Wright’s conduct was investigated. This was obviously a pretext for removing him from the high court. Justice Wright submitted his resignation in 1877.
After leaving the Court, Wright moved to Charleston and set up a law practice. He established Claflin College’s law department and conducted classes at his office in Charleston. He served a number of years as a Claflin College trustee and was active in the Republican Party. Jonathan Jasper Wright died on February 19, 1885 of tuberculosis.
Painted by Larry Francis Lebby in 1997.
Located in the Reading Room.