Human relations activist. Born in Marion on March 12, 1902, Wright was the first child of the banker Samuel Wilkins Norwood and Albertine Buck, granddaughter of one of South Carolina’s largest slaveowners. After attending Marion private and public schools, Alice earned a bachelor of arts degree in history and literature from Converse College in 1923. Participation in student activities of the Young Women’s Christian Association channeled her liberal Baptist religious beliefs into social service.
Wright taught school in South Carolina before moving to New York City in 1926. After earning a master’s degree in religious education from Columbia Teachers’ College and taking courses at the YWCA National Training School and Union Theological Seminary, she worked for the Germantown, Pennsylvania, YWCA. In 1930 she began a three-year journey around the world, attending conferences in England, the Soviet Union, India, and China and studying Asian culture in Japan. She also taught school in the Philippines and China. Through her contacts with cultured people of different races, she developed a cosmopolitan outlook.
Returning home, Wright became the first South Carolina woman appointed to administer a county relief program, in Marion. She set up relief during the 1934 strike of the United Textile Workers of America. Though she openly expressed sympathy for the strikers, her family’s prominence prevented her from being fired. Promoted to district supervisor of eight counties, Wright later directed the rural rehabilitation survey. Eventually she served as state supervisor of education for federal programs in adult and worker education.
In November 1936 Wright married Eugene H. Spearman and moved to his Newberry farm. They had one son. A partner in marriage, she helped her husband write his campaign speeches for the position of county supervisor. Drawn to civil rights, Wright in 1943 helped to organize the South Carolina Division of the Southern Regional Council (SRC). Needing a paying job in 1951, she became executive director of the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs and associate editor of Clubwoman magazine. Then, in October 1954, she was chosen executive director of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations, the new name of this SRC affiliate. Holding her position until 1967, she worked to build a biracial community committed to racial justice.
Wright’s strategy was to encourage open discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. But she found that most whites, particularly clubwomen, closed their minds to desegregation during the state’s massive resistance period. By 1963, however, the South Carolina Council and its Student Council on Human Relations helped prepare campus opinion for peaceful desegregation at Clemson College and the University of South Carolina. Under her direction the council participated in a Voter Education Project, encouraged compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and developed programs targeting illiteracy, lack of job skills, and rural and urban poverty. An appointee to the South Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Wright in 1964 was awarded an honorary doctorate in humanities by Morris College in Sumter.
Wright showed that an upper-middle-class white woman could break free from the traditional feminine role and racial prejudices of her society. In 1970 she married the attorney and former Southern Regional Council president Marion A. Wright (Eugene Spearman had died in 1962). The North Carolina Civil Liberties Union bestowed the Frank P. Graham Award on Alice Spearman Wright in 1973. She died in Columbia on March 12, 1989.
“Alice N. Wright, worked to better human relations.” Columbia State, March 13, 1989, p. A6.
Bass, Jack. “South Carolinian Doesn’t Pussy-Foot about Life.” Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, January 3, 1967, p. A8.
Synnott, Marcia G. “Alice Norwood Spearman Wright: Civil Rights Apostle to South Carolinians.” In Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women’s History, edited by Janet Lee Coryell et al. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.