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Honoring His Honor: America’s First Black State Supreme Court Justice

November 19 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

$10.00 – $15.00

Charleston resident Jonathan Jasper Wright, an attorney originally from Pennsylvania, was sworn into his seat on the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1870 – as the country’s first African American Supreme Court Justice. His tenure coincided with the rise and fall of the Reconstruction in the South, a time of temporarily granted legal and political opportunities for Black Americans. Join the Charleston Library Society in welcoming Judge Richard Gergel and Professor William Burke, both authors of Justice Wright’s story in the context of African-American struggles in the legal community during the Reconstruction, for an in-depth reflection on the inspiring life of Justice Wright, his political successes, failures and his relevance to the new freedoms in the Age of Reconstruction.

About Jonathan Jasper Wright

Jonathan Jasper Wright, the first African American to serve on a state Supreme Court, was born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Susquehanna County in the northeastern corner of the state. In 1858, Wright traveled to Ithaca, New York where he enrolled in the Lancasterian Academy, a school where older students helped teach younger ones. He graduated in 1860 and for the next five years taught school and read law in Pennsylvania.

Wright’s first known political activity came in October 1864 when he was a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men meeting in Syracuse. The convention, chaired by Frederick Douglass, passed resolutions calling for a nationwide ban on slavery, racial equality under the law, and universal suffrage for adult males. When Wright applied for admission to the Pennsylvania bar, however, he was refused because of his race.

In 1865 the American Missionary Association sent Wright to Beaufort, South Carolina to organize schools for the freed people. Wright taught and gave legal advice to the ex-slaves. In 1866 he returned to Pennsylvania and was now, with the backing of a new Federal civil rights law, accepted into the bar as the state’s first African American attorney. Wright returned to Beaufort in January 1867 and worked as a legal advisor for the Freedman’s Bureau. He soon became active in Republican politics and was chosen as a delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention that met in Charleston in January 1868. Later that year he was elected to the South Carolina state senate representing Beaufort. In 1870 the Republican-dominated legislature in Columbia named him a justice of the state supreme court even though he was 30 and had little courtroom experience. He joined two white Democrats on the bench.

By 1876 white conservatives, using fraud, intimidation and violence, managed to gain control over South Carolina’s government. However, it was Wright’s concurrence in a February 1877 decision confirming the authority of a Democratic claimant to the governor’s chair, Wade Hampton, which ended Republican rule, reconstruction in South Carolina, and Wright’s tenure as a state Supreme Court Justice. When the new Democrat-controlled legislature attempted to impeach Wright for corruption and malfeasance he at first denied the charges and vowed to defend his name and record. By August 1877, however, realizing he would not win, Wright submitted his resignation.

Wright moved to Charleston where he practiced law, then to Orangeburg where he established the law department at Claflin College. Jonathan Wright died of tuberculosis in Orangeburg in 1885.

About Judge Richard Gergel

Richard Gergel is a United States district judge who presides in the same courthouse in Charleston, where Judge Waties Waring once served. Waring is one of the central figures of Gergel’s book, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (Sarah Crichton). With his wife, Dr. Belinda Gergel, he also wrote In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Judge Gergel earned undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University.

About Professor William Burke

Professor Burke is a Distinguished Professor emeritus of the University of South Carolina School of Law. He taught at USC for 37 years. In that time he served as Director and Chair of Clinical Education and as Associate Dean. He has authored and edited seven books and numerous articles and book chapters. These include All for Civil Rights, a history of the African American bar in S.C.; At Freedom’s Door, essays on African American Founding Fathers in Reconstruction S.C.; and Matthew J. Perry:  The Man, His Times and his Legacy. Now retired, Professor Burke birds, drives the tractor for his farmer wife and lectures on the long, long struggle for civil rights in South Carolina.  


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CLS Member
Honoring His Honor: America’s First Black State Supreme Court Justice
$ 10.00
121 available
General Admission
Honoring His Honor: America’s First Black State Supreme Court Justice
$ 15.00
125 available


November 19
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
$10.00 – $15.00