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

Bob Spike, Civil Rights Activist

Robert Warren Spike (1923 – 1966) was a clergyman, theologian, and civil rights leader. Born in Buffalo, NY, he came to NYC while studying for the ministry. He began his career as pastor at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in 1949, reviving the social activism of this famous urban church. During his time at the church, neighborhood kids played basketball in the church’s ramshackle gym and an interracial, international residence for students was established. Spike also helped to create an art gallery where artists could exhibit their unconventional works.

In 1958 Spike left his parish ministry to take on a national role as General Secretary of the United Church Board For Homeland Ministries. In 1963 he was appointed the Executive Director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, which became an important arm of the Civil Rights Movement. He worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and others in the movement.

In January 1966 Spike took a position as Professor of Ministry and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Less than a year after assuming his post in Chicago, Spike was bludgeoned to death at Ohio State University in Columbus on October 17, 1966. No one was ever tried for his murder; after a systematic review some church sources believe that he was assassinated.

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Historic, but not famous

George Downing, abolitionist and activist

George T. Downing (1819-1903) was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights. From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad, with his restaurant serving as a rest house. During the American Civil War, Downing helped recruit African American soldiers.

Downing’s grandparents were former slaves. He attended one of the first free African schools in New York City and went on to Hamilton College. In 1842, Downing started a catering business in Manhattan. His work brought him in touch with many of the elites of the city, including the Astors and Kennedys. In 1850, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, continuing to work in Newport during the summer. In 1854 he built the Sea Girt Hotel, which was burnt to the ground on December 15, 1860, by an arsonist. He replaced the building with Downing Block, part of which he rented to the Government to serve as a Naval Academy hospital.

Downing was an important leader in abolitionism in New York. He was active in the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and together with Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crumell. Downing was central in the movement for African American civil rights during the Civil War. He was also president of the Convention of Colored Citizens in Boston on August 1, 1859. He played a role in Reconstruction politics as well pushing for the support of blacks against violence and repression in the south.

 

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Historic, but not famous

Lewis H. Michaux, bookstore owner, civil rights activist

Lewis H. Michaux (1895–1976) was a Harlem bookseller and civil rights activist. Between 1932 and 1974 he owned the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem, New York City, one of the most prominent African-American bookstores in the country.  Before coming to New York he worked as a pea picker, window washer and deacon in a church in Philadelphia.

Michaux opened the African National Memorial Bookstore in 1932 on 7th Avenue and stayed there until 1968, when he was forced to move the store to West 125th Street (on the corner of 7th street) to give space to the State Harlem office building. The bookstore finally closed in 1974 after another location issue. He called his bookstore “House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda”. The store became an important reading room of the Civil Rights Movement. The bookstore was a rare place for black people and scholars and anyone interested in literature by, or about, African Americans, Africans, Caribbeans and South Americans. Michaux’s bookstore had over 200,000 texts and was the nation’s largest on its subject.

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