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.

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Historic, but not famous

Henry G. Steinmeyer, historian

Henry Steinmeyer wrote one of the definitive books on the history of Staten Island from 1524-1898. Originally published in 1950, this book from the Staten Island Historical Society chronicles the Island’s history from colonization through the turn of the century.

A native of Staten Island, Steinmeyer helped to establish the Richmondtown Restoration project. His genuine love of the Island and its past illuminates the pages of this lively and amusing history. The book was updated in 1987 with additional photographs of landmarks throughout Staten Island including the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The original printing in hard cover is hard to come by and is valued at over $2000.

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Historic, but not famous

Elizabeth Holtzman, first female comptroller of NYC

By Unknown - Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27745498Elizabeth Holtzman (born August 11, 1941) is an American politician and former member of the United States House of Representatives. She was the first woman to hold office as the New York City Comptroller, and the District Attorney of Kings County, New York. A Democrat, she represented New York’s 16th congressional district for four terms.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, she graduated from Radcliffe College and Harvard Law School. She was admitted to the NY Bar in 1966. While in Congress, she was not only part of the committee that put together the impeachment papers for Richard Nixon, but went to court to end the bombing in Cambodia filing a legal challenge in United States Federal Court in the case of Schlesinger v. Holtzman. Holtzman voted against the Case-Church amendment, as she wanted an immediate end to the bombings, and subsequently filed suit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York seeking an order to require it.

In 1978 she secured an extension for the deadline for States to vote on the proposed Equal Rights amendment to the US Constitution. That same year, she also got the law to expel Nazi war criminals that had settled in the US. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for US Senate and re-entered New York State politics as a DA in Brooklyn in 1985 and NY State Comptroller in 1989. Her last term in elective office ended in 1994.

Since then she has been an attorney in private practice in New York City. She is now an attorney and author on politics. She published a memoir in 1996, Who Said It Would Be Easy?: One Woman’s Life in the Political Arena with Cynthia L. Cooper. On January 11, 2006, The Nation published her essay calling for the impeachment of U.S. President George W. Bush for authorizing “the wiretapping of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Americans, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” She expanded on her arguments for impeaching President Bush in a 2006 book co-authored with Cynthia L. Cooper, The impeachment of George W. Bush: a practical guide for concerned citizens.

Thank you , Dave Gardiner suggestion for bringing this amazing woman to my attention. 

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Historic, but not famous

James Weldon Johnson, author, educator, diplomat, civil rights activist

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Johnson may be best remembered for his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917.

Johnson established his reputation as a writer, and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture. He was a prominent and influential voice of the Renaissance. In 1934 he was the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University.

Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s. Johnson composed the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” originally written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton School. This song became widely popular and has become known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted.

He became involved in civil rights activism after he returned from Venezuela and Nicaragua where he served as the US Consul for President Roosevelt. He was especially involved in  the campaign to pass federal legislation against lynching, as southern states did not prosecute perpetrators. Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Maine, when the car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people. Johnson’s ashes are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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