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John and Sylvia Wright look into local history and share some of their own

Sylvia and John Wright
Provided by the Wrights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2013 - About five years ago, Sylvia Wright discovered a piece of history that she’d never known before. During the Revolutionary War, she learned, about a third of George Washington’s army was made up of black soldiers. Some were free, others slaves. And they fought for the founding of this country.

“I cried when I learned about it,” she says now.

She thought of her 8-year-old self in a segregated classroom at Marshall Elementary School, learning about that war.

Knowing of those black soldiers, she says, “would have meant so much. You would have felt a part of the country. It just meant so much to learn that, that we were a part of this country’s history from the beginning.”

The role and impact of black Americans is a history that isn’t always told, but Wright and her husband, John Wright, are working to correct that.

John Wright is the author of several books about local black history. His latest book, which Sylvia Wright co-authored, “Extraordinary Black Missourians: Pioneers, Leaders, Performers, Athletes, and Other Notables Who’ve Made History,” tells the stories of more than 100 influential Missourians.

The Wrights are not among the influentials they name, but in their own lives, they’ve both been among the firsts in many things, witnessing change, and making it, too.

The Ville

The Wrights have lived nearly all their lives in St. Louis, often blocks apart.

He grew up in the Ville neighborhood, bordered by Martin Luther King Boulevard, St. Louis Avenue, Sarah Avenue and Taylor Avenue, before housing was desegregated.

Because of that, Wright went to school and played with the children of prominent black doctors and lawyers as well as steel and domestic workers.

It was a self-contained community, he says, that provided him many examples of what was possible, though he didn’t quite grasp that as a child.

He did, however, learn about who he was.

“We had a good idea of African-American history, and there were things you could see around us.”

There was Homer G. Phillips Hospital, for one.

“You did have role models you grew up around,” he says, “and it wasn’t a question of could you become a doctor, because there were black doctors, there were black dentists.”

Wright spent those early years in the Ville in a two-room, cold water flat with his mother, who worked to support them.

And because the neighborhood schools were often overcrowded, he switched schools many times growing up. He joined the first group of black students to attend Cote Brilliante Elementary School before transferring to Cupples Elementary School.

A few blocks away, Sylvia Wright grew up a bit south at 4308 Fairfax in a row of cold water flats. She lived with her mother, father, two sisters and her brother. Two of her uncles lived with them for a time as well.

They walked the long walk to Cole Elementary School, later switching to Marshall Elementary School.

Like John Wright, Sylvia Wright was surrounded by a diverse social strata that she didn’t think much of. There were steelworkers, like her father, and doctors. All the kids played together and walked to school together.

In her neighborhood, she saw young women grow up to become nurses, one young man become a doctor.

In both houses, education was everything.

“The aim then was to get educated,” Sylvia Wright says, “plus, to do better, and our families saw to it that we could.”

Building their careers

John Wright and Sylvia Wright both walked the halls of Sumner High School at the same time, though they didn’t know each other. After high school, John Wright went to Harris Teachers College. He didn’t want to be a teacher but knew he wanted to go to college and could get a good education there for $20 a semester.

Many of his friends who went to Stowe with him went on to go into careers in broadcast and dentistry, but after his first year, John Wright discovered he actually liked teaching. 

After graduation, he went on to work in a number of teaching and administrative jobs around St. Louis area schools, including working at Webster Groves Public Schools, then as the superintendent for Kinloch Public Schools, then as assistant superintendent for Ferguson-Florissant Public Schools after the district merged with Kinloch. 

John Wright spent 20 years in human resources before retiring, but that didn’t last long. After three years, he was asked by the Normandy School District to return and then he spent a year working as the interim superintendent for the St. Louis Public Schools.

During all this time, Sylvia Wright was equally busy. 

She was one of the first two black students to be accepted to the nursing program at the Jewish Hospital School of Nursing.

After graduating, she met her future husband, and the two married in 1961 and began a family as both continued their educations. Sylvia Wright went to on get her bachelor’s and master’s in nursing from Washington University, and the couple had three boys.

Growing up in University City, John Wright Jr., their oldest son, says attending college wasn’t a choice for him and his brothers but a solid expectation. 

“It wasn’t a question of if we were going to do it,” says Wright Jr., who is now an elementary school teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools, “but how we were going to do it.”

Education has been a central part of their lives, says Sylvia Wright, who also has a master's in education. Between them, the couple has six degrees.

"We managed," she says, "and I'm proud of that."

The write stuff

John Wright, the unlikely teacher, may also be an unlikely author. In fact, he hated writing. He took two extra courses in his master’s program so that he wouldn’t have to write a thesis. 

But at Kinloch, he found a history that needed to be told and wrote about the desegregation of St. Louis’ all-black schools for his dissertation for his PhD at St. Louis University.

And he kept on writing. John Wright has written about the histories of much of St. Louis’ historically black neighborhoods and people, including Florissant, University City and Carondolet. His book“Discovering African American St. Louis -- A Guide to Historic Sites,” is also very important, says Esley Hamilton, preservation historian for the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department. 

“The more we know about the community, the better we can appreciate it,” he says. 

By offering his work in an accessible way, Hamilton says, the Wrights are helping to knit St. Louis closer together. The Wrights also want to knit the past with the present. They want young Missourians, and older ones, too, to know the stories of the people who came before them, what they faced, and what they were able to achieve. 

Unlike in his segregated youth, many young black students don’t come across black teachers or professionals the way John Wright did, and he wants them, and their parents, to know what’s possible.

“Kids have to be able to dream,” he says, “to think of possibilities.”

Their son, Wright Jr., says that every time a new book comes out, new people contact his parents with more stories, more corners to look into, more people to discover.

“Every book is, in some aspects, a work in progress,” Wright Jr. says.

“Extraordinary Black Missourians,” is the second book John Wright has officially co-authored with his wife, who doesn't really want any attention. But she’s always been his reader, his grammar checker and the one who can help him say what he’s trying to say.

Her grammar and editing skills are slipping, Sylvia Wright says, so she thinks this may be her last book. But John Wright isn’t so sure.

“If we don’t keep the stories alive,” he says, “they die.”

He’s working on both his and his wife’s own family histories now.

"I don't know where he'll go next, but I suspect that he probably will keep on with this," she says. "It's in him."

Kristen Hare