Attorney, legislator, jurist. Wright was born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, on February 11, 1840, the son of Samuel Wright, a runaway slave, and his wife, Jane. He was raised on a family farm in Springville, Pennsylvania, and came under the influence of a local minister and antislavery advocate, Dr. William Wells Pride. Wright studied privately with Pride for three years and thereafter attended Lancasterian Academy near Ithaca, New York, graduating in 1860. Wright then began teaching, first in Montrose and later in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In addition to his teaching duties, Wright began reading law.
Wright’s first attempt in 1864 to be licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania was rebuffed, apparently due to his race. He then took a position with the American Missionary Association teaching black federal soldiers, many recently freed slaves, stationed on the Sea Islands near Beaufort, South Carolina. Wright arrived in April 1865 and soon became involved in the civic and political affairs of the community. He returned briefly to Pennsylvania in 1866 in a successful effort to be licensed to practice law, making him the first black attorney in that state. He returned to South Carolina in January 1867 as an employee of the Freedman’s Bureau, officially described as an “agent assisting free people in legal affairs.” As such, Wright became the first black attorney to practice in South Carolina.
Wright returned to South Carolina just as the state’s black majority was poised to receive the right to vote. He was elected a delegate and a vice chair of the 1868 constitutional convention. Wright was a vocal and successful advocate of constitutional provisions for public education and a broad homestead exemption. Wright’s prominent role in the state constitutional convention won him wide praise. After narrowly losing the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor at the party’s 1868 convention, Wright was elected to the state Senate from Beaufort County, making him among the state’s first African American legislators.
When an opening occurred on the state’s supreme court in 1870, Wright found broad support for his candidacy across party lines. Elected by the General Assembly as an associate justice on February 1, 1870, Wright became the first black man elected to a state or federal appellate judgeship in the United States. His election sparked celebration in the state’s black community, and the Charleston Daily News observed that Wright now sat in “the highest position held by a colored man in the United States.”
Wright served on the court for nearly seven years and wrote some ninety opinions. Most dealt with routine legal matters, but several notable cases addressed legal issues arising out of slavery or claims related to the recently concluded war. In one decision Wright recognized the liability of a railroad for the racially discriminatory act of its employee, and in another opinion he voided the corporate charter of a company incorporated during the war as a blockade-runner because this was “an act of hostility to the United States.”
Wright’s tenure on the court ended following the election of the Democrat Wade Hampton as governor. The election disputes eventually reached the state’s supreme court, and Wright angered Hampton supporters when he issued an opinion refusing to recognize Hampton’s legal status as governor. One Democratic newspaper wrote that Wright had made an “ass of himself. . . . Condemn him!” Shortly after Democrats began impeachment proceedings against him, Wright resigned from the court in August 1877.
Wright moved to Charleston, where he opened a law practice at 84 Queen Street and trained young lawyers in his office as the chair of the Claflin College law department. He encountered significant health problems with tuberculosis, however, and died on February 19, 1885. He was buried in the cemetery of the Calvary Episcopal Church, Charleston.
Gergel, Richard, and Belinda Gergel. “‘To Vindicate the Cause of the Downtrodden’: Associate Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright and Reconstruction in South Carolina.” In At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, Jr. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Woody, R. H. “Jonathan Jasper Wright, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, 1870–77.” Journal of Negro History 18 (April 1933): 114–31.