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.
Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891 – 1995) was a dentist and civil rights pioneer. She earned her dental degree (DDS) from Columbia University in 1923, only the second African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. She was one of 10 children raised by a former slave who became a bishop in his church and a teacher in North Carolina.
She attended St. Augustine’s in North Carolina and after graduation, came to NYC and enrolled in Columbia University, where she was the only African American woman in a class of 170. She shared a dental office with her brother, Dr. H. B. Delany Jr. after her graduation. They eventually moved the office to Harlem.
Throughout her life, Bessie, participated in many protests and marches, and encouraged civil rights organizers to meet at her and her brother’s office. She passed away at 104 at her home in Mt. Vernon, New York.
Ms. Delany and her elder sister Sarah “Sadie” Delany, were the subjects of The New York Times bestselling oral history, Having Our Say, written by journalist Amy Hill Hearth in 1991. The book was on The New York Times bestseller lists for 105 weeks. It spawned a Broadway play in 1995 and a television film in 1999.
Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885 – 1949) was an American architect. He was the first African American registered architect in New York State. He initially attended Tuskegee Institute studying architectural drawing. In 1907 he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in architecture.
Tandy also holds the distinction of being the first African American to pass the military commissioning examination and was commissioned First Lieutenant in the 15th Infantry of the New York State National Guard.
He designed buildings for Harlem millionairess Madam C. J. Walker, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 204 West 134th Street in NYC, and the Ivey Delph Apartments, designed in 1948, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Carrie McHenry Thomas (1913 – 2013) was the first African-American to work at the Arsenal in Central Park with the New York City Parks Department. She was recruited in 1937 by Stuart Constable, the Director of Parks under Robert Moses.
She worked in Room 100, which was then the Capital Projects division for Parks. She was one of three women working there, and started out as a Contract and Specification Writer. She worked in the Capital Projects division until 1978. She also advocated for the hiring of other African-Americans in the park department including engineers and architects.
Ms. Thomas worked on civic and election campaigns at a time when Blacks were becoming politically active, including campaigns with Hulan Jack, the first Black borough president in New York City, coming from Harlem, Constance Baker Motley, the first female borough president and dozens of others in her Harlem neighborhood. She and her husband, Richard, were donors to Black charities and civic organizations, including Harlem Hospital Center, the Schomburg Center for Research, the New York Urban League, Harlem School for the Arts and the National Office of the NAACP.