Historic, but not famous

Bruce Wright, judge

Bruce McMarion Wright (1917 – 2005) was a jurist who served on the New York State Supreme Court. Though he was born in Baltimore, he spent most of his adult life in Harlem. In 1939, he received a scholarship to  Princeton University, but was denied admission when he arrived and the university learned that he was black.  Notre Dame also denied him admission on the same grounds. He was able to study at Virginia Union University, and graduated from Lincoln University in 1942.

He served in the Army, in a segregated unit during World War II and eventually ended up in Paris. His early ambition to become a poet was fulfilled when he wrote “From the Shaken Tower.” The book was edited by Langston Hughes and published in 1944. He left poetry for Law and studied at Fordham University Law School, obtaining his law degree from New York Law School.

He was named general counsel for the New York City Human Resources Administration in 1967 and assigned to the bench for the first time in 1970, serving in the Criminal Court of New York City. Judge Wright was soon publicly critical of the judicial system and voiced his belief that race and class all too frequently determined the outcomes of trials. He denounced what he called racism in the criminal justice system, and created a furor by often setting low bail, and sometimes no bail, for poor or minority suspects.

His views and low bails made him unpopular with police officers and prosecutors and he was assigned to civil court. After a lawsuit, he was brought back to the criminal court. Throughout his career, Wright held onto his belief that the judicial system, including bail, was stacked against poor and minority defendants.

Judge Wright spent 25 years on the bench hearing criminal and civil cases. He was the author of a 1987 book, Black Robes, White Justice, about the role of race in the judicial system, which won a 1991 American Book Award. He later authored an autobiography, “Black Justice In A White World.” Sixty-five years after being denied admission to Princeton because of his race, he was made an honorary member of their Class of 2001.

Historic, but not famous

Isaac Hopper, abolitionist, prison reformer

Isaac Tatem Hopper (1771 – 1852) was an abolitionist who was active in Philadelphia in the anti-slavery movement and protecting fugitive slaves and free blacks from slave kidnappers. He moved to New York City in 1829 to run a Quaker bookstore. From 1841-1845 he served as treasurer and book agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1845 he became active in prison reform and devoted the rest of his life to the Prison Association of New York.

He influenced his daughter, who started the Women’s Prison Association to work for prison reform as well. His work was known by legislatures in Albany and the governor trusted his opinion on the pardoning of many prisoners.

The Isaac T. Hopper Home of the Women’s Prison Association

The Isaac T. Hopper House, a Greek Revival townhouse at 110 Second Avenue in the East Village of Manhattan stands in his honor and for the work he did with the Quakers and prison reform. The house has been part of the prison reform system since the 1870s. It continues to serve as a half way house for female prisoners.  The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and was designated a New York City landmark in 2009.

Historic, but not famous

John Pintard, Jr., merchant, philanthropist

John Pintard, Jr. (1759 – 1844) was a merchant and philanthropist. He was born in NY and orphaned by 18 months. He was raised by his uncle, Lewis Pintard, and attended grammar school in Hempstead, New York. He attended the university that would eventually become Princeton, but left school to join the patriot forces when the British arrived in New York. He went on various expeditions to harass the enemy. He served as deputy commissary of prisoners at New York.

He was rated as one of the most successful merchants in NYC when in 1792 he lost his fortune by engaging with William Duer in Alexander Hamilton’s scheme to fund the national debt. He had personally endorsed notes for over a million dollars and was imprisoned for the debt. He never recovered his old fortune, but his position and respect in the community enabled him to contribute generously to the projects he sponsored.

Pintard was instrumental in convincing Thomas Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase. He also served in NYC as secretary of the Mutual Assurance Company and secretary of the New York Chamber of Commerce. He was a founder of the New-York Historical Society, helped found the free school system in NYC, was an active participant in getting the Erie Canal built, worked with the surveyors for the Upper Manhattan street plan, was one of the chief supporters of the General Theological Seminary and helped found the American Bible Society.

St. Nicholas by John Pintard (1810)

Though all of those accomplishments pale in comparison to his helping bring Santa Claus to popularity in the American culture. He celebrated the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas. His publication in 1810 of a pamphlet proposing St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York City attracted his friend Washington Irving who published articles on Santa Claus for the Salmungundi Club.

Historic, but not famous

Melancton Smith, delegate to the Continental Congress

Melancton Smith (1744 – 1798) was a New York delegate to the Continental Congress.  He was born on Long Island, home schooled and moved to Poughkeepsie, where he became a a delegate to the first New York Provincial Congress in New York on May 22, 1775. He served in the Continental Line Regiment on June 30, 1775, which he organized as the Dutchess County Rangers.

Smith moved to New York City in 1785 where he was a prominent merchant. He helped found the New York Manumission Society in opposition to slavery and served in the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787. He was the most important Anti-federalist member of the State ratification convention at Poughkeepsie in 1788.  Smith became convinced that New York had no choice but to accept the ratification of the Constitution and could not afford to wait until it had been amended. His vote for the Constitution, with the recommendation of amendments, broke Anti-Federalist ranks and brought down Governor George Clinton’s wrath.

He was one of the few important landowners and merchants among the Anti-Federalists, and Smith continued in the Clintonian party. He was elected to the Assembly in 1791 and canvassed the state for Clinton in 1792 against John Jay. He has been cited as author of the more prominent Antifederalist essays written to encourage voters to reject ratification of the Constitution.

He died during the yellow fever epidemic in New York City in 1798 and is buried in Jamaica Cemetery, Jamaica, Queens, New York.