Educator. Wright was born in Talbotton, Georgia, on April 3, 1872, the seventh of twenty-one children born to the African American carpenter John Wesley Wright and his full-blooded Cherokee wife, Virginia Rolfe. She spent her youth in a three-room cabin built by her father and learned to read at an all-grades school held in a church basement. At age sixteen she read a flyer about the Tuskegee Institute, founded in Alabama by Booker T. Washington to provide African Americans with vocational skills aimed at improving economic opportunities. After scraping together enough money for train fare, she arrived at Tuskegee in 1888 as a night student who would pay her way by working on campus during the day. After two years at Tuskegee, she moved to McNeill’s, a sawmill town in Hampton County, South Carolina, to help in a school for rural African Americans founded by Tuskegee trustee Almira S. Steele. When the school was burned down by local white citizens, Wright returned to Tuskegee to graduate. She then moved back to South Carolina, determined to start an institution that would replace the school in McNeill’s.
Several of Wright’s lowcountry schools fell victim to white arsonists and to the objections of county and state education officials. She managed to find funding by campaigning at local churches and tapping northern benefactors willing to support education for African Americans. In 1895, determined to teach basic math and literacy to mill and farm workers, she founded in Hampton County the state’s first night school for African American men. Although she later organized two additional all-grades schools for African Americans in Hampton County, her goal was a large institute on the Tuskegee model, with acreage enough for a demonstration farm.
In 1897 Wright relocated to the town of Denmark, opened a school over a grocery store, and began raising money for her larger venture, Denmark Industrial Institute. Her most generous benefactor was Ralph Voorhees of Clinton, New Jersey, who provided $5,000 for the purchase of 280 acres and construction of a schoolhouse. Voorhees Industrial School opened its first building to African American male and female students from elementary to high school ages in 1902. By 1903 the student population numbered 252. They learned math, reading, and writing, as well as farming, cooking, sewing, cleaning, leather working, carpentry, and other vocational skills. In a February 18, 1904, letter to Booker T. Washington, Wright summarized her curricular motivations: “As most of the people in the South live by tilling the soil, if they have a knowledge of agriculture they will soon become independent men.”
Wright married Tuskegee graduate Martin A. Menafee in 1906. Within a month she became terminally ill with intestinal problems that had plagued her since childhood. She traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, for surgery and died there on December 14, 1906. In 1929 Voorhees Industrial School opened a junior college, which became the first junior college for African Americans to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It later became Voorhees College, a private four-year college.
Coleman, J. Tuskegee to Voorhees. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1922. Morris, J. Kenneth. Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, 1872–1906: Founder of Voorhees College. Sewanee, Tenn.: University of the South Press, 1983.