Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 020/Mary Wright

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Mary Wright Hill
BornMary Wright
March 6, 1881
Asheville, North Carolina
DiedNovember 11, 1946 (age 65)
Athens, Georgia
Other names"Martha," Mary Reid, Mary Dedawyler
OccupationPrimary School Principal
Years active1906-1943

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Mary (Martha) Wright was born March 6, 1881 in Asheville, North Carolina.[1] Her parents were both born in Greeneville, North Carolina and of mixed race backgrounds. Both of Wright’s grandmothers were of African descent. Her maternal grandfather was Native American and her paternal grandfather was French. Wright had five siblings.

Early in Wright's childhood, her father moved the family to Atlanta, Georgia to pursue his work as a brick construction contractor. Her father's work supported the family with a middle-class income. At the age of seven, her father died, leaving his wife and six children to support themselves.

In her youth, Wright desired to become a medical doctor. However, she soon realized that becoming a doctor was unrealistic for someone of her race and gender and decided to become a teacher.

Professional Life[edit | edit source]

Upon completing high school, Wright attended Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). While Wright was in college, her mother lost her vision and was unable to work. Because Wright's mother could no longer work, Wright dropped out of college to support her family at age 13. Her first job was a teaching position at an all black primary school in Oxford, Georgia with a starting salary of $30 a month. Each month, Wright sent a large portion of her earnings to her mother in Asheville. As a young college dropout, Wright was still more qualified than many of the black teachers at the school. She had two adults working under her at the age of 13.

After two years of teaching in Oxford, Wright accepted a teaching position in Athens, Georgia with a monthly salary of $35. After almost a decade of teaching at East Athens School, Wright became the first non-Caucasian woman school principal in the history of Athens, Georgia. When she began her career as principal in 1906, her salary was $40 a month. 33 years later, Wright's salary was $135 a month.

As principal, Wright oversaw the expansion of East Athens School. During her tenure, the student body population grew from 190 to 600 and the number of teaches from three to eight. Wright's efforts as principal improved sanitation for students. After city officials repeatedly failed to respond to Wright's complaints of unsanitary well water, she contacted the Georgia State Board of Health. After inspecting the water sample, the State Board of Health told Wright that they were surprised contagious diseases like typhoid fever were not being spread through the water. Wright received a diploma from the Chataqua Institute of Nursing in order to better prevent and cure illness among her students. During her time as principal, Wright successfully implemented running water, electricity, modern plumbing and a telephone at East Athens School. Wright received national recognition for her work in child health.

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Wright married three times and had two daughters, both by her first husband. She married her first husband, barber George H. Reid, on Christmas Day in approximately 1902. Exactly a year after getting married, their first daughter, Vivian, was born. Wright's second daughter, Marinita, was born on the Fourth of July in 1905. Wright’s first husband died circa 1916. Fourteen years after the death of her first spouse, Wright married John Dedawyler in approximately 1930. She divorced her second husband after two years of marriage and married her third husband, Squire W. Hill, on September 27, 1936. In her spare time, Wright taught illiterate black adults to read and write. Wright owned a home and was fond of paintings.

Mary Wright Hill retired from her position as principal in 1943, meaning that she held the position for 38 years. [2]On November 26 1946, she died at the age of 65.

Education of Blacks[edit | edit source]

Literacy[edit | edit source]

The literacy rate of black adults increased significantly between 1890 and 1930. At the national level, the percentage of blacks that could read and write increased from about 40 percent in 1890 to 80 percent in 1930. In Georgia specifically, the rate of black literacy rose from 30 to 74 percent. Over the same forty year time period, the national rates of white literacy rose from 70 percent to more than 90 percent.[3]

Funding and Resources in Schools[edit | edit source]

A 1930 study found that school boards in southern states spent almost three times more per pupil on white students than black students. In 1930, the state of Georgia spent $32 for each white student and $7 for each black student. The disparity between black and white teacher pay was also significant. In 1930, the average salary of a black teacher ($73 a month) was 60 percent of the average salary of a white teacher ($118 a month).[4] It was difficult to attract qualified teachers when the salaries being offered were so low. In the south, many black teachers lacked any post-secondary education.[5] A 1931 study found that the average black Alabama teacher was not proficient at the ninth grade level. In fact, many teachers were assigned to teach grades above their level of proficiency.[6]

Black children in rural areas were even more disadvantaged than black city children, especially during the Great Depression when thousands of black sharecroppers lost their jobs.[7] Because rural communities were poorer than cities, they had less money for education spending. In some areas, this entailed a town only being able to afford one schoolhouse. If an area could only afford one schoolhouse, the schoolhouse would be for white children. If black children had access to schooling at all, they attended schools in poor conditions, oftentimes with bad sanitation and old, used textbooks. Classrooms were almost always crowded and understaffed. Many black children in rural areas had to skip school to work with their families during farming season. Because the school calendar revolved around the farming season in rural areas, children in these communities also went to school for shorter periods of time than city children, sometimes as little as two to three months a year.[8]

  1. Wright, Mary. Interview with Sadie Hornsby. Principal of Grammar School Thirty-Three Years. Federal Writers' Project. Athens, Georgia. 1939
  2. LaCavera, Tommie. "Among Clarke County's Notable Women Were First Black Female Education Administrator; Vocal Opponent of Women's Suffrage." Onlineathens.com. October 30, 2001. Accessed September 29, 2015. http://onlineathens.com/stories/103001/ath_women.shtml#.VgRc0stViko.
  3. Irons, Peter. "Jim Crow's Schools." In Jim Crow's Children. Penguin Group USA (Inc.), 2002.
  4. Irons, Peter. "Jim Crow's Schools." In Jim Crow's Children. Penguin Group USA (Inc.), 2002.
  5. Benjamin, Karen. 2003. "Progressivism Meets Jim Crow: Curriculum Revision and Development in Houston, Texas, 1924-1929 * I wish to thank M. Catherine Miller, Barry Franklin, and William Reese for their useful comments on earlier drafts of this essay." Paedagogica Historica 39, no. 4: 457. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2015).
  6. Irons, Peter. "Jim Crow's Schools." In Jim Crow's Children. Penguin Group USA (Inc.), 2002.
  7. TROTTER, JOE W. "African Americans, Impact of the Great Depression on." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 8-17. U.S. History in Context. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
  8. Brooker, Russell. "America's Black Holocaust Museum." Americas Black Holocaust Museum The Education of Black Children in the Jim Crow South Comments. Accessed October 5, 2015.