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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
University of Florida
Oral History Program
Interviewee: Reverend T. A. Wright
Interviewer: Joel Buchanan
Date: January 23, 1986
REVEREND T. A. WRIGHT
FIFTH AVENUE BLACKS, ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: JOEL BUCHANAN
PLACE OF INTERVIEW: GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA
DATE OF INTERVIEW: JANUARY 23, 1986
Reverend Thomas Alexander Wright was born in Mansfield, Georgia, on March
26, 1920. His parents were Albert Wright, a Baptist preacher, and Roxie
Wright. He attended school in Palm Beach County, and after graduation briefly
lived in Philadelphia. He was drafted and served in the Army in the latter
years of World War II, and upon his return, attended Florida Memorial College
on the GI Bill, and later completed his degree in the ministry at Howard
University School of Religion in 1954.
Reverend Wright was one of the motivating forces in the NAACP in
Gainesville in the early 1960s, and this interview discusses the events that
occurred in the days of integration. He also details his experiences as the
son of a minister in Palm Beach County, his educational experiences, and his
early days as a minister.
B: Reverend Wright has been a pastor for more than thirty-eight years,
he is currently the pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. This
interview is for the University of Florida Oral History Project and
the City of Gainesville Northwest Fifth Avenue Project. Good
morning Reverend Wright.
W: How are you doing?
B: Fine, thank you sir. Reverend Wright would you please tell me what
the T.A. stands for in your name?
W: It stands for Thomas Alexander.
B: Was this a name given to you by your parents or is it a name from
someone within the family.
W: It is from two grandfathers on both sides, the grandfather on my
mother's side and my father's side, Thomas and Alexander.
B: Has the thirty-eight years of pastoring in the Baptist Church been
here in Gainesville?
W: No, I pastored for two years in Baltimore, eight years in St.
Augustine, and I am on my twenty-fourth year here.
B: Where was Thomas Alexander Wright born?
W: I was born in a little place called Mansfield, Georgia, March 26,
B: What city is that near?
W: It is about thirty-five or forty miles west of Atlanta, it is a
B: Is the homestead there?
W: Yes, the homestead for the original Wright family.
B: Where does Thomas fit into the family in the sense of children?
W: Well, my parents had seven children and I am the fourth child. I
have three children beyond me and three under me. So, I am right
in the middle of the children.
B: Would you tell me something about your parents and grandparents?
W: Well, I do not know a great deal about my grandparents. Most of
them were deceased before I was of age. But, my father was a
primitive Baptist preacher and he also farmed on the side about
1924. They moved to Boynton Beach, Florida. He never just went
right out as a pastor, but he was primitive Baptist. He passed in
1931 and my mother died a couple of years ago, she was about ninety
when she died.
W: Yes, and they were buried in Boynton Beach.
B: Their names are?
W: My father's name was Albert Wright and my mother's name was Roxie
B: Now your parents moved to Boynton Beach in 1924.
B: Is that where you got the basis of your education?
W: Yes, I attended the public schools in Palm Beach County. My wife
and I left the county and went to Philadelphia to live during the
war. We lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for two or three
years. I worked at various places at Philadelphia. My last job
was at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. I worked there as a pipe
fitter-helper. I attended Bright Hope Baptist Church. The church
is pastored now by Reverend Gray, I was a member there. I was
drafted into the service from Philadelphia and after going into the
service, I served in England about six months, then we went by New
Guinea. We did not stay in New Guinea very long, and then we got
off the ship in the Philippines, Manila, Luzon. I stayed in the
Philippines about four or five months. I was in the Philippines
when they dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan and the second
atomic bomb on Japan. And shortly after they dropped the second
atomic bomb on Japan, we had to fight Japan four or five days after
that. And I stayed in Japan for five months and then came back in
America. When I came to America I went back to Boynton Beach, I
did not go back to Philadelphia. I stayed around there two or
three months and then I enrolled in Florida Memorial College as a
veteran in 1946. Then I finished Florida Memorial College in 1950.
About 1951 I enrolled in the Howard University School of Religion.
I finished Howard University School of Religion in 1954, and that
is when I took the church in St. Augustine, Florida.
B: So, prior to 1951 you were not a pastor?
W: I had done a little preaching and speaking as a young man in my
home church, but I really became ordained about my second year in
college. I was ordained in 1948.
B: Do you feel that because your father was a minister, this has some
bearing on you going into the ministry?
W: I :think it may have had some bearing on it, not a whole lot because
I was only about eleven years old when my father died. Of course,
later on I knew he had served as a minister and that was in my
background. I knew how devout he was. I found all of that out
before he passed. I also knew how faithful he was as a father and
to the family. It had a lot to do with my upbringing I am sure.
B: Let us go back to the family life, those first eleven years, you
mentioned that your father was a devout family member. Was there a
cohesiveness among your family in doing things together?
W: Of course, my father and mother at home, we were very close. My
father was a very good provider, I mean a number one provider. My
father used to buy groceries by the wholesale. At that time you
could buy five gallons of lard, you could buy a 100 lbs. of
rice, and food in a bulk like that was very reasonable. And so
most of the staple things he bought in bulk. He had all of his
children understand that if you need anything and you happen to be
out in a store, you could go in there and tell them I said to let
you have it. And that is what we did. Anything we wanted, any
store in Boynton it was understood that if you were one of Albert
Wright's children you got what you wanted. And he was just that
kind of person.
B: I see.
W: He farmed on the side and worked very hard, took care of his
B: I am quite sure you can recall some days in school. Can you share
with me an experience that you had in school that was meaningful
part of your life?
W: When I say school I actually did not go to high school as such. My
father died when I was eleven, this left my mother with seven
children. The older children went out to get jobs. I was not
really one of the older children, but when the older children went
out to get jobs it made it difficult for the younger ones to
continue in school. So, I remember Mr. Olsy Youngblood who lived
in Delray, he was the principal of our school in Boynton. Mr.
Youngblood said to me, "Wright it is very unfortunate that with the
kind of mind that you have you are not able to continue school."
So, Mr. Youngblood said, if you can get a part-time teacher as long
as I can get by with it I will carry your record on at school as if
you are there and you pass the tests. Well, that went on for a
while and then our school in Boynton was asked to be a part of an
oratorical contest in West Palm Beach. Mr. Youngblood said I do
not have a student in this class who could really participate and
do well. You were not in school every day but you are the one that
I think would be good in the contest. And we did an oration, went
to West Palm Beach that night for the contest and my principal and
several others felt that I won the first prize, but they gave me
second prize. And yet I was not in school every day. I was
working everyday. But I won second prize and my principal said to
me that night on our way back home, "I am hoping that the time will
come when you will get a chance to go back to school." When I got
out of the service and was married living in Boynton, my principal
drove to Boynton and said, "You can go to school now on the G.I.
Bill. I have been thinking about you going back to school every
since you left." I went to Florida Memorial College, where they
had regular students right out of high school, and then they had
veterans who were trying to qualify to take college work. They had
a lady on campus by the name of Mrs. Marsburn who taught the
veterans, and I guess she probably had about a hundred different
veterans in classes. She said now some of you, if you study hard,
you will be here maybe one semester and then around the second
semester you can take college work. So, after the first semester I
did well enough to take college work and that was it.
B: Isn't that amazing the dedication that the principal had.
W: Yes. I finished as an honor student at Florida Memorial College.
Just before I had finished, it was the first semester of my senior
year, a lady was teaching at Florida Memorial who had finished
Howard and she said Mr. Wright, what are you going to do when you
finish college? I said well, I have a wife and four children and I
will get whatever job I can get and go to work. She said, oh, you
cannot do that. I said, yes I am going to do that. My family has
gone through so much suffering for me to do otherwise. So she said
listen, I am going to Washington. I am going to tell the dean at
the Howard School of Religion to make it possible for you to get a
scholarship to attend Howard. I said no, I cannot do that. She
said I am going to put in for the scholarship whether you go or
not. I am going to see you get it. Well, not long after
that a gentleman who was teaching at Florida Memorial went to the
convocation at Howard and he said to me, Mr. Wright, I am going to
the convocation at Howard and I would like for you to go
representing the student body. I said, I cannot go, I do not have
any money. I have another semester in school before I finish and
my G.I. Bill has given out. He said just let me tell you, I am
driving to the convocation, the school has given me fifteen dollars
to give you on your expenses. Well, will you mind telling me how I
am going to live in Washington for a week on fifteen dollars? He
said if you go, everything will be all right, he had finished at
Howard. So, we went to the convocation, and it was out on Friday,
his family lived in Washington, so he said the fact that his family
lived in Washington he was not rushing back. He said he would go
back on Monday. Well, he gave me the fifteen dollars, I stayed at
the Y for one dollar a night and I used the rest for food. So, I
said well what am I going to do sitting around until Monday
morning, he said, well, I do not know. I had some friends in
Philadelphia, my wife had an aunt on her mother's side who lived in
Philadelphia. I caught a ride to Baltimore with Reverend Tilly,
who was at one time the president of Florida Memorial, he was the
outgoing president when I finished. He was living in Baltimore, so
I caught a ride to Balitmore. I caught the train there to
Philadelphia, and I said to my wife's uncle by marriage, I have one
more semester in college and my G.I. Bill has given out. I said if
I could borrow three or four hundred dollars and I could finish
college, I could get a job and pay you back, he said I do not have
a dime. We sat there that Saturday morning then he said to me
weren't you drafted from the state of Pennsylvania? I said yes, I
was drafted in Philadelphia. He said well, the state of
Pennsylvania is paying a veteran's bonus. I jumped up and went to
the post office, seeing if I could make the thing out and send it
in. Well, I said I will wait and see what happened to that and
then I said to him that Sunday night, I have to go back to
Washington and catch a ride with this gentleman to Florida. I said
I do not have my fare back to Washington. He said, I do not have a
dime, but he said I work for the Pennsylvania railroad and you can
take my pass. I said, what, that is too risky. He said take my
pass and you get on a train all you have to do is show them the
pass and have a self-addressed envelope and just drop it in there
when you get off the train. So, I got on that train that night and
the conductor came by and said ticket, ticket, ticket. I waved the
pass, he went right by and did not say a word. I went on back to
Washington and went to Florida with the man I had come with. About
two or three weeks after that I got 250 precious dollars from
Pennsylvania and I have said ever since then, I was praying to the
Lord to give me something for that last semester. The Lord was
answering my prayer and I did not know it. Well, when I finished
school the scholarship was waiting for me when I finished Florida
Memorial. It was understood that I would get about three or four
hundred dollars a quarter, it was on the quarter system. But, I
would get it near the end of each quarter. I caught the train to
Washington. There was a building about three or four blocks from
campus that single students lived and married students who did not
have their families with them. The lady was a school teacher, Mrs.
Helen Newberry. A fellow by the name of Varne who taught at
Florida Memorial College was back in school and I knew him. I went
on campus and enrolled and Varne said, you will probably live at
the Newberry House where I am living. After we registered we went
to the Newberry House. Alfred Varne carried me all over the house.
I said this is a nice house, he said yes, this is a nice house. He
said the small rooms are twenty dollars a month, with two to a
room, a larger room is twenty-five dollars a month. He said we
know each other do you want to be my roommate. I said that will be
all right. So he was my roommate. Mrs. Newberry came in about
four o'clock from school, I had never met her before. She went
around and collected from old students and new students. So, when
she got to my room where I was, Varne knew her, he had been there
before, so he gave her twenty dollars, so he walked out. So Mrs.
Newberry said, Wright that will be twenty dollars. I said I do not
have but twenty dollars. What! I said Mrs. Newberry let me give
you ten dollars now and the other ten dollars later. She had a
fit. She said listen young man let me tell you what, I clean this
house up every weekend and another house across town. I teach in
the night system and the day system. I said Mrs. Newberry that is
absolutely too much work for a lady to do on the weekend, and also
teach in the night and day system, why don't you let me help you.
She said I do not want anybody's help. She slammed the door and
left. But that Saturday she called me to come down, I went down.
She rented a garage for her Buick, she bought a new Buick every
year. She told me to go and get her car at the garage, she gave me
the key and it was right down the block. I brought her cat back
and washed it, cut the grass in the yard and for the rest of that
year she gave me breakfast every morning, supper at night and I
never gave her another dime for the rest of the year.
B: Why is it that you were getting all of these blessings?
W: The Lord knew, I guess, what I was trying to do and the Lord was
just helping me. I did not give her another dime. That second
year I had to do my field work in Baltimore. So, I said to Mrs.
Newberry I cannot help you this year because I have to be down in
Baltimore every Sunday. I am going to pay you this year. Of
course, she did not want to accept any money, so I went on and paid
that way. But the second year I started my field work in Baltimore
I would preach once a month on Sundays. They would take an
offering for me that would average about $100 month and I worked
there for two years. The church had 4,500 members, Enin Baptist
Church. I worked there for two year and then I finished and took
the church in St. Augustine.
B: Now during the time that you were doing your studies at Howard
where was your family?
W: I left them in what they call one of the army barracks like seen on
campus and after I was in school for about a year my wife went over
to Florida Memorial and by the time I finished at the Seminary she
was about to finish college. I would send them money, because
along with the scholarship I got a couple of part-time jobs. So, I
would send them money and my wife got a night job cooking at a
restaurant at night two or three hours. So they stayed there. I
came home every summer and we tabled at the same restaurant every
summer when I came home.
B: Now is that restaurant that your wife worked in, and you worked in,
is it still....
W: Two different restaurants.
B: Two different ones?
W: Yes, I think the one where she worked the man retired, he is out of
business, and the one where I worked the man sold it years ago.
B: Now the wife that we are speaking about that you married, is this
still Mrs. Wright that you are married to today?
W: Oh, yes of course.
B; Now what year was it that you were married?
W: We got married in 1940, in Miami.
B: And you enrolled in college in the 1940s through the 1950s?
B: After you finished college at Howard, and you were pastoring during
that time, did you immediately go right into the pastoral?
W: Well, you see I was at Baltimore for two years as assistant pastor,
and as soon as I finished the seminary I got the church in St.
Augustine. But you see I did not pastor when I finished college, I
went straight to the seminary. I did not have any time in between
there because I finished college in 1950 and then in 1951 I went to
B: And you were there two years?
W: Three years. From 1951 to 1954.
B: Now how were you able to finance that education?
W: Well, I had two part-time jobs in Washington and the scholarship.
After the scholarship became to be really established it was worth
$400 a quarter. They got to the place where they would give me
$130 the first month, $130 the second month, and $130 the third
month. Then I had a couple of part-time jobs in Washington.
B: The church that you were working in part-time, you used the term
primitive Baptist, was that a primitive Baptist?
W: No, my father was primitive Baptist, but this was a Missionary
B: Now what is the difference there?
W: Well, a primitive Baptist church, they will scrub and wash your
feet. In a missionary church they do not wash feet and the
doctrine is a little bit different.
B: Is it not as strict or by your own procedures?
W: It carries the connotations of being a strict New Testament Church,
that is why we call it primitive. So, missionary Baptists may be a
bit more modern than primitive Baptists.
B: What brought you back to Florida? To the South?
W: Let me tell you this. Most of the students who went to Howard they
did their field work in Washington. The church where I did my
field work the minister was a staunch Republican, Reverend Arthur
J. Paint. And under President Eisenhower, he requested the chance
of being the ambassador of Liberia. That is how I happened to do
my field work in Baltimore. My homilies teacher knew Reverend
Paint quite well, they grew up together. He said I want you to
recommend a young man to me that I would recommend to the church in
case I got the appointment as ambassador to Liberia. And that is
how I happened to do my field work in Baltimore. Otherwise most of
the students were sent back in Washington. Reverend Paint did not
get that appointment as ambassador to Liberia so he stayed there
but he did say this to me, I will be retiring in four or five years
why don't you let the church hire you as my full-time replacement.
No, I do not want to do that. I would like to do something from
scratch. I would like to go up to a community where there is a
great need for trained ministers, and what you have is an almost
ready made situation. I do not want that. Well, after coming to
Gainesville and being here about six months he still tried to get
me to come back to Baltimore.
B: Did he really?
W: Yes, now here is what he said, he called me one day and he says
"Brother Wright," I said yes, "The church around the corner from me
you know the church," I said yes, "They have 1,500 members," I said
yes, "They need a pastor. Things are all fixed so that you can
come back and pastor the church and I will retire in a couple of
years and you will switch from that church to this one." No,
Reverend Paint I am not going to do that. I just got here. "Well,
at least come and preach for the people on Easter Sunday morning."
No, I am not going to do that because I am not planning on leaving
here, I just got here.
B: Were you being selfish?
W: Well, I was not selfish. My wife had been hired as a teacher, and
the church had given me a job here, and I saw several things that I
wanted to do. I saw a need for public housing as soon as I got
here. I saw a need for day care centers, and I had it in the back
of my mind to do something about black business and there was a
great need for civil rights in Gainesville. I felt that eventually
there would be a need for more than church, and I saw all of these
things that needed attending. I did not want to go back to
Baltimore. Enin Baptist Church was a huge church, beautiful
building, mostly a middle-class church, very well organized, a lot
of members, big salary, a great challenge, but I saw myself
pastoring that church, but I also saw the opportunity to pastor a
community as such and that is what I had in mind, not just four
walls of a particular church but, to do things that would benefit,
not just 4,000 people but maybe 20,000 people, you think in terms
of Gainesville and the black community and others.
B: Why did you choose Gainesville? I think you were at St. Augustine
priority coming here.
W: Well, I did not choose Gainesville as such. We got bogged down in
civil rights in St. Augustine and it became to be a very dangerous
situation. At first my wife was teaching in the night school
system in St. Augustine, because of my activities she was fired.
B: Now your activities were what now?
W: Activities in civil rights.
B: You were involved there in civil rights?
W: In other words, all civil rights, right to vote down to civil
rights. Threatening situations and all of that kind of stuff. So,
they fired her in St. Augustine and she went to Bunnell in Flagler
County and got a job and after two years they fired her there
because of my activities in civil rights. I thought it was time to
get out. We had invited Dr. King to come and help us, but he had
not gotten there then.
B: Are you talking about the mid 1960s or late 1950s?
W: I came in 1962. I am talking about 1960-1961, also 1959. Bogged
down on civil rights. We had sit-ins and demonstrations, all that
kind of stuff. I was the leader of the movement behind the scenes.
A lot of black people knew it, but a lot of white people did not
know it. When they found it out, then they took action. I decided
it was time to leave St. Augustine. I spoke at Mt. Sinai Baptist
Church in Jacksonville getting ready to leave St. Augustine. I
spoke at Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona. I spoke at the
Baptist church in Bradenton. I came to Mt. Carmel in Gainesville
and I fainted in the pulpit when I came here to preach. I guess it
was because of the heat, the frustration, and the fear that so many
things will strike you. So, I fainted in the pulpit. But in
spite of my fainting they did call me and out of all the other
churches that I went to...I could have gone to Bradenton because
they said to me we do not want to waste our time calling you if
you are going to come to Bradenton we want to know it. So, I just
did not go to Bradenton. It is a small place you know, so I turned
around, and when they called me I came here.
B: That was 1960?
B: Did you agree to become involved in the civil rights movement in
Gainesville? Or was there a movement in Gainesville?
W: They had some Freedom Riders to come through here. They did not
have much of a movement. We gave our youth banquets at the church.
Judge Mickle was a student at the University. He was our only
guest although he was a member of the church. Near the end of the
banquet he came and sat beside me and said, "I might suggest that
stuff that 'you had going on in St. Augustine, we need to do some of
the same stuff here." And I shook my head and said no, I tell you,
I am just right out of the fire and I am not planning on getting
back into the fire. But they started some sit-ins at restaurants
and I met Dr. Paul Home of the University, Marshall Jones of the
University, some more professors and we started sit-ins, picketing,
the whole works. Not long after that I was elected president of
the NAACP, then at the same time I ran for the city commission,
lost, then ran again. But we got wonderful support from the
University and we had a real movement.
B: I need to know the period that you ran for city commission.
W: Let me see, it must have been 1963 or 1964 I guess, or 1965.
B: How did your wife feel about you getting back involved again?
W: Well, my wife did not like it. She had been fired in St.
Augustine, fired in Flagler County, she had just been hired here,
so she said you know we are going to run out of counties after
awhile. She did not like it. But, she did not do a whole lot to
stop it either. She just sat back and observed while we carried on
B: How would your members at the church feel about your activities at
W: Well, the members of the church have been very liberal in that
respect. And as long as I did my work at the church and they knew
that, they did not have a great deal to do with what I did in the
community. They gave me their support but they did not try to put
any restrictions on my activities in the community, many of them
would lay it down with me, whatever I attempted to do, they were
B: Share with me some of the planning, strategies that went on during
the early 1960s concerning the NAACP when you became president.
What was the city like? What did you all do to get things going?
How did you do that?
W: They had an organization on campus, faculty wise, Gainesville Women
for Equal Rights. It was somewhat a counter-part organization to
the NAACP. And it was integrated.
B: Was this is prior to your being in the NAACP?
W: We were together on this about the same time. They were very
active and then the NAACP was very active. Some of our objectives
were the same. We had some joint meetings together in terms of our
objectives. So, they gave us a lot of support. Some even joined
the NAACP. And most of the women in that organization were
professional black women and white women working together. And
they formed quite a bridge for the black community. The political
science department at the University of Florida has some wonderful
people and much of our political strategy came from the political
science department at the University of Florida. Dr. Ruth McEwan
and some other professors at the University met with us and we
planned together. Much of what we did in terms about knowing about
the issues, political issues, the candidates and that type of
stuff, they helped us with that a great deal. We stayed up until
three or four o'clock in the morning planning discussing things.
And they were very helpful to us, to the black community period.
B: Did you have the support of the black community from your working
class as well as your educated people in your planning as well as
W: We had across section of both and then we had a cross section of
students and faculty. Some very liberal caucasian students and
some very liberal faculty members. Whatever we thought ought to be
done they were right down with us. That particular thing was
different here from St. Augustine.
B: Was it?
W: We did not have a caucasian person when I was in the movement in
St.Augustine not a caucasian to help in any kind of way. I was
really shocked to see the help that you could get here from the
University when we started the movement. I was really shocked.
The caucasians from the University, faculty and students, they
played a tremendous role in much of what we did.
B: Was it a very hot time. Did you have the very vocal and violent
W: Yes, it got pretty rough at times. The students picketed the
Florida Theatre downtown one Sunday night and then it got pretty
violent. When the students left from downtown and came to Fifth
Avenue, they threw bricks, broke cars, and stuff like that, getting
back at the people who were messing with them. I thought somebody
would get killed that night. But nobody got killed, some people
got roughed-up quite a bit, but nobody got killed.
B: Were you given protection as the president of that branch?
W: What we did we would notify the FBI when we were going to have an
all out demonstration and we thought something would happen we
would notify the FBI. And the FBI would notify the police
department and it was not out-right protection, kind of standby,
you know. And we got several threats at home, my family did. I
notified the FBI and sometimes the officers in a very unconspicious
way would stand around and watch. They were having a workshop
Monday out at University Inn.
B: This is across campus?
W: Yes, on Thirteenth Street. Dr. Paul Hart was at the workshop and
we got ready for lunch and Dr. Hart said, "Let's go right down the
street here to Jerry's." At that time they had two Jerry's one on
this end and one on that end. Let's go down the street to Jerry's
for lunch and Dr. Hart said to a black girl, "You go with me," and
said to a white girl, "You go with Reverend Wright, we are going to
mix it up." We went down there to that restaurant, they brought us
some dirty dishes, I mean deliberately dirty dishes. I guess they
took them out of the sink and they brought some around supper and
Dr. Hart said what you call yourself doing and we passed some word
then we left. We went back to the University Inn and got a little
bite to eat, a snack and then we went back into the afternoon
session and went home that night and Lavonne picked up the phone
and somebody said while you were out today we put some bombs under
the house. Lavonne dropped the phone and ran out of the house
hollering, saying come out of the house quick. We went out of the
house and Lavonne told us what the person said over the phone. I
went to another phone and called the FBI. I told the FBI, I think
it is a hoax, do not pay it much attention, do not call the police
department. They promised me that they would not call the police
department but as soon as I hung up about fifteen policemen
surrounded our house. So, they said to us, you all stay right out
here and let us search around the house. They searched around the
house for about an hour and a half, and they did not find anything
so we went back into the house.
B: Did that draw interest from persons within the community?
W: Well, a lot of people came by and wanted to know what was happening
and we told them what happened. Then when they got ready for total
integration in the county, the school board sponsored a discussion
at Gainesville High. They had a very meaningful discussion and
they had a very heated discussion, the place was packed. I was
leaving and two caucasians caught me at the door and said, "You are
behind this whole mess. We certainly ought to take you and drag
you out of this building." I continued walking and went on to the
car but Idid wonder if they were really going to grab me.
B: Did you?
B: And during this time you traveled how many times by yourself?
Weren't you fearful.
W: By myself and I would notify the FBI, and the FBI would come in and
watch out sometimes, but most of the time I traveled by myself.
B: Did you every feel that your life was totally...?
W: I felt that something could happen but honest to goodness, I felt
that what I was trying to do was much more important. I did not
have any idea of stopping at all. It never crossed my mind, to
cease the activities never crossed my mind. It was just something
that had to be done.
B: Why you?
W: Well, I had a lot of people helping me you know. I was not out
there by myself. Every time I got ready to do something there was
always a group of people there ready to help you.
B: Were you aware of problems from the mayor of the city, the city
fathers? Police department? Did you have their support?
W: There were times when we had their support and there were times
that they did not give us their support, but they still did not
stop us. We were not nearly as politically strong then as we are
now because there were times when they did not even know you. But
we are quite fortunate now to the extent that you could know the
city fathers quite well and much of that time we had not had a
black person serve on commission, much of that time. And you had
not had a black person serve on any other official capacity at that
time in Gainesville. We finally worked up to it. So many of the
things we did, why you just went out and did them without much
B: How many years were you the president of the NAACP?
W: About eighteen years.
B: What were some of the accomplishments that happened during that
time that you feel very positive about?
W: Well, during that time we threatened to file suite to integrate
Alachua General Hospital, but they went on and did it without
filing a suit.
B: So, prior to that time blacks were not allowed there?
W: Black people were there, but they had a particular floor for black
people and they were not integrated into all of the floors of the
hospital. They carried that on for a number of years, and then
when they integrated the hospital black people were on all of the
floors. You see once they integrated it, they did not have any
black people in a responsible position and they do not have too
many black people in a responsible position now at Alachua General,
and that is one of the things that deserves some attention. I
served as an alternate member on the violation committee. We
worked with hotels and restaurants to get them to integrate their
facilities. Negotiated many of the situations to get the hotels
and restaurants integrated. We put pressure on the city fathers to
pave a lot of streets that were not paved in the black community.
We also put pressure on the city fathers to do something about
recreation in the black community and to integrate recreation.
Integrate all of the parks, and do not have segregated parks or
segregated recreational facilities like they did have in
Gainesville. During that time, as you well know, we filed suit to
integrate the schools and a young man by the name of Joseph
Buchanan, Sandra Williams, and another young lady, Lavonne Wright,
they were the first students to be accepted at a high school in
Gainesville in Alachua County. They had to take tests to be
included which did not make any sense to me and they had to pass
the tests which did not make any sense at all. And so we decided
it was just a delaying tactic. I was told to not take any chances
in letting the students go on their own. For several weeks, I
would pick up the students and come to Gainesville High, and pick
them up in the afternoon. We would discuss what happened the first
few days. I was going, and I got some very negative reports, name
calling and so forth. But it finally simmered down for that first
B: How do you feel now after being, at this point you were the only
really recognizable black leader here in Gainesville, beyond
ministers, because no one else was higher than that because we had
no elected officials, correct?
W: No, we did not.
B: When Thomas Wright went some place they knew who Thomas Wright was
B: You were the NAACP in a way, correct?
W: In a way of speaking. Now, we had a whole lot of people working
with us but, we did have fifteen dependable people behind the
scenes that really gave me good support and when those fifteen
people said yes, they meant yes. In terms of what we were trying
to do, getting memberships, financial drives to carry on our work,
those fifteen people were really strong supporters, they made up
the board. And of course our membership would average between 350
and 500. We paid most of our fees and our national fees, there
were times when the membership went below that but our goal,
between 350 and 500. Many people who were members of the
organization did not come to the meetings, but we had their
B: Was there ever any time that you had to bring in some of your
prominent figures, Dr. King, state presidents of other
W: State presidents of other organizations came. Dr. King did not
come to Gainesville, but when Dr. King decided to go to St.
Augustine, I went back and helped in the planning. I went back one
Sunday night and gave the initial speech for that week. In fact,
twice that week they had Dr. King in St. Augustine.
B: So, he was in Florida, in St. Augustine?
B: Reverend Wright did you have the support of the black churches,
ministers, and school systems?
W: There were some ministers who had been here long before I got here.
They may not have been schooled in social activities, or the social
gospel as I had been schooled in the seminary, but those ministers,
many of them who had been here for a long time, were some of my
best supporters. Like Reverend White, who was at Friendship.
B: That is D. A. White?
W: D. A. White and Bishop Williams, who is at Williams Temple, and
Reverend Daniels who did not have a church as such but was a very
storng supporter, and Reverend Jackson, who was a custodian at
Duval for a long time. They were some of my best supporters and
also Reverend William Ferguson who was at Mount Pleasant. Now,
they did not come to every meeting, they did not participate in the
marches, but they would come to me and say what can I do. And when
it came time for NAACP memberships, the men that I called would
take membership cards, get memberships and Bishop Williams would
say this, my people may not just take out the memberships
themselves, but if you give me twenty-five cards, I will pay for
twenty-five people. That was remarkable, that was simply
remarkable. He did it every year. He would pay for twenty-five
people from his church. That was the kind of support that I had.
B: Were you paid?
W: No, I was not paid a dime. I did not ask for anything. I just
figured that the work had to be done and that was it. And instead
of being paid, if anything it cost me a lot of money, because when
it was time for membership drive, I would leave our church without
standing at the door and some minister at some church would let me
come in and make an appeal. And I would have already contacted the
minister and I would tell him that I would be there as soon as I
can, and he would hold the people over. And my wife would write up
the memberships. We would get twenty-five members sometimes at one
church and at another church we might get twenty and at another we
might get thirty. I would do that Sunday after Sunday while the
membership drive was on and then in nearby places, I would go to
Newberry, Starke, La Crosse, Hawthorne, Chiefland, and all of these
nearby places. With one contact person there, I would drive my car
and do the speaking and get memberships and an offering for the
NAACP. Never charged a dime.
B: Never, in the eighteen years?
W: Never. What ever memberships we got, whatever money that we got,
it went to the organization. Mrs. Amy Saunders was the treasurer a
and that is where it went. I would also ask them to designate a
certain amount of money for charitable purposes. If somebody was
really in a tight spot who lived here, or a transient person coming
by, we always had some money to give them a little handout,
something like that.
B: Were there any suits that had to be carried through, concerning the
NAACP to get things integrated?
W: We filed suits to integrate the schools, and that was about the
only suit that we filed. Everything else we negotiated
settlements. We had a lot of cases with the city especially.
B: Was this job related?
W: Police brutality, police harassment, with the city police
department, we lost every one of them.
B: Did you?
W: Never won a one, they always won. But, we would go right back and
try again. But,in spite of our losing we let them know that we
were aware of what was happening and it caught the attention of the
people. Although lost, they had a couple of cases with the
district attorney, and lost each one. Somebody, a federal judge
would come down and hear the cases but we would lose.
B: Who was the legal advisor for the NAACP here in Gainesville?
W: We did not have one in Gainesville as such. We had an NAACP lawyer
in Jacksonville. In one case for the district attorney, got Judge
Mickle when he was practicing attorney he was on one and in other
cases we did not use a lawyer, the district attorney had a lawyer,
but we did not get anyone.
B: We talked about the NAACP a lot, now let us go back to Mt. Carmel
Baptist Church. When you came to Gainesville and received this
membership you said they you wanted to preach to the community, you
had several things that you wanted to do. Was Mt. Carmel a large,
W: Mt. Carmel was about the largest church in the black community. It
was a great potential, it is still a great potential. Many things
had to be done. The church did not have a membership roster as
such. So, we went from door to door until we got a membership
roster. The church did not adopt budgets you know. So, we put in
a financial system,) record keeping system, a filing system, and
things like that. And we did away with a lot of clubs and
auxiliaries that were organized to raise money. I am told that we
would not be raising money, we would be giving money, but not
raising money as such. We placed emphasis on tithing and
sacrificing for God. We put aside the money raising. We came in
with a youth program, with youth directors and so forth. And we
revamped the music for the church. For a long time we had a part-
time director of music, Mrs. Green, and we went all out to get
better musicians for the church, people who had had special
training in music. Over a period of time we started saving money
to build a new church because the old church was already in its
last days. It was very limited in terms of its facilities.
B: When was that church built sir?
W: The church must have been built in the 1940s. And not an old
building, but no parking spaces, no classrooms for instructional
purposes, and it just did not have any of the facilities.
B: How many years were you in that edifice?
W: Well, under my administration we stayed there about twenty-four
years and in this building almost two years, about twenty-two
years. Of those twenty-two years we were saving money to build a
new church for about fifteen of those years.
B: And the membership of the old church when you came to what it is
now, is what to what approximately?
W: When I went into the old church, I guess they had about 400
members. Right no we are pushing 700. We had taken in the numbers
of 150 since we have been here in this new location.
B: And the square footage from that church to this church is what? Of
course, we are sitting at the New Mt Carmel Church or should I say
the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.
B: This is about what, four times the size of the old church?
W: Oh yes. We have twenty classrooms here. At the other church we
only had eight classrooms. We have a library in this facility, a
clinic, a choir practice room, a nursery, a toddlers room, parking
for about 200 hundred cars, and an auditorium will seat 1,000
people. The lower level and the balcony, yes, 1,000 people. We
are hoping that the church will continue to grow and that we are in
a very challenging area, a low class and low income people. We are
hoping that we can establish a real rapport with all groups of
people in this area.
B: Do you see this becoming fruitful?
W: It is quite a challenge. We have a number of people who have done
surveys and last summer at the Southern Baptist Convention,
basically caucasion, paid two young missionaries to work with our
young people for a week. They located seventy prospects. Our goal
is to locate 300 prospects, and to win them for Sunday School and
the church as many as we can. This summer the Southern Baptist
Convention is paying a young black missionary to work with us five
weeks at their own expenses to continue the surveys, work as a
youth minister for five weeks, working with our young people.
B: Is the church fulfilling the same role it did twenty, thirty, or
forty years ago?
W: Well, the role of the church is much more fruitful than it was
twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. The church now is more in the
community, in terms of community involvement. Our church owns and
operates Gardenia Garden Apartments, 100 units, we borrowed 1.5
million dollars from the government to build on it. Our people
rent it. Our church helped organize Palmer King Day Care Center,
we accompanied 100 low income children there, and we have sixteen
people working there. Mrs. J. Harper, a member of our church runs
that. Our church is a stanch supporter of Bell's Nursery over town
and most of the members of the board are from our church. Mrs.
Virginia Hayes, who runs it, is a member of our church. All of
these centers are on what they call the Foresee program. Under my
leadership Palmer King Day Care Center took the initiative in
organizing the Foresee programs. In fact the first meeting that
was called was called by the board of Palmer King to organize the
Foresee program and Palmer King took the initiative in putting the
Foresee program together. I remember quite well, we were in Palmer
King, Bell Nursery, was in operation and some other day care center
was in operation. Money was a real problem with all of these day
care centers. And a lady by the name of Mrs. Bertha Moss, who
at that time was a psychiatrist at the V.A. Hospital, was on our
board at Palmer King. She said, Reverend Wright, I have a friend
who lives in Jacksonville, was very close to the Nixon
administration, I would like to invite him down and we can have a
board meeting at my house. He would tell us what to do to get
matching funds from the government for day care centers. She
invited him down, Palmer King board, and he told us what steps to
take, step one, step two, step three, and step four. And we
operated on the steps. Then he said the first things, the matching
fund would have to be one-fourth of what you get. Sid Martin was
on the county commission at that time, and the first year the
matching fund was $25,000. He helped us to get it through the
county commission, that first year. And we were asking for
$100,000, that first year. And we really put the Foresee programs
together in the county, so now they have sixteen day care centers
in the county under the Foresee program. Our church is directly
involved with three of them. Members from our church are on the
board at Kennedy Home, Palmer King, and Bell Nursery.
B: So, your needs when you told the Reverend Payne that you wanted to
see housing, day care, black business, civil rights, there was a
need for it. Do you feel that you have fulfilled those areas?
W: We have not reached the apex in any of those areas, but we have
come a long way. Gardenia Garden was the first housing project to
be occupied in Alachua County for low income people. And the city
of Gainesville has in the neighborhood 2,000 units now, for low
income people. At that time they did not have any.
W: Absentee landlords dominated the black community with shacks, and
they constituted a great deal of the power structure. They did not
want low income housing. They fought it. But when we took the
initiative and got money for Gardenia Gardens, they knew that they
had to do something, and they did.
B: Was that a big fight to get that done?
W: That was a big fight. That was one of the main platforms when I
ran as city commissioner, low income housing. And we went to a
nearby county got a picture of low income housing in a nearby
county and in one of our ads we put in the paper, what it cost to
live at that unit, and what it cost to live in a shack in the black
community. I took the initiative in putting an organization
together to build a shopping center that was supposed to be a model
in the black community in terms of what black business could do.
Unfortunately it did not succeed, but we tried.
W: We did not get support of the black community for the shopping
center. There was a lack of capital and training in terms of
management. We faced all of those problems. And this is one of
the greatest needs right now, black entrepreneurs to organize and
establish black businesses, to help supply many of the jobs that we
make for our children's children. This bothers me. This bothers
me to the extent that we can consume over our share of alcohol and
we can use a lot of our 100 billion dollars that we earn in America
on luxuries, but we cannot find enough love and cooperation to
work together to supply jobs for our own children, this bothers me.
And the amount of money that we have, it does not stay with us, it
goes right back where it came. A very small amount stays with us.
It goes right back. And we may as well face it, in the mean time
many of us are included, we buy Cadillacs, Chryslers, Mercedes, beg
for jobs for our children. Ninety-nine and one-half per cent of
all the jobs for black people come from across the track. And yet
there are other minorities who do so much better; Chinese,
Japanese, Filipinos, Mexican-Americans, Cubans, and working
together to supply jobs for their children. As blacks, we just
cannot seem to get it together.
B: Do you think we ever will?
W: I do not know that. There seems to be a need for some kind of
black leader with special gifts in economics, similar to Dr. King,
his special gifts in handling civil rights. There needs to be some
kind of outstanding leadership in the area of economics to really
get us moving. I do not know where it will come from, but it needs
to come from somewhere.
B: Do you think that is what it will take to change?
W: Yes, it needs to come from somewhere because there have been so
many failures all over America, shopping centers and otherwise. It
just cannot happen the way we tried to make it happen at the
B: Now the name of the shopping center was?
W: Shopping Center. Now the corporation owned the building,
then we had seven tenants in those phases, a barber shop, a drug
store, supermarket-the largest, a record shop, a laundermat, there
were two others, seven all together. We got the money from small
business administration and Prudential Insurance Company to build
the building. Most of the tenants got subsidiary loans from SBA for
their particular businesses. The tenants had to scrape the barrel
to get their first stock to open. In businesses it does not work
that way. You plan on continuing from your first stock without any
kind of reserve. Well, it just does not work like that. They did
not know it I guess, they would find out. You have got to be ready
to suffer the loss, it may be a couple of years before you really
make that business work.
B: How long was the shopping center open for?
W: Oh, it stayed open about a year and a half, something like that,
and even that year and a half was a real struggle for every tenant
in there. They were just straggling from day to day to make it.
Even the grocery store, the projection for the grocery store that
size was $21,000 a week. The best that they could do was $5,000.
They were in trouble from the very beginning. The amount of stock,
it took to start the place, the size of the place, and the number
of people working, the projection was $21,000 a week. After
selling out of that stock and replacing some things they finally
got to the place where the turnover was not fast enough. Not much
traffic. And then most of those businesses went for week and weeks
without paying their rent. And the corporation itself was in
trouble, because we were not meeting our obligation to pay the
government. They did not pay us, so we could not pay the
government, and it never did work.
B: Did you all have the support, and when I say support, the
educational assistance from the city of Gainesville, the county,
and the university in this effort?
W: No. I knew at first they reopened one Friday and they had S. B.
Mann to come down from Atlanta to speak, and we built a platform
out there for the opening and the Gainesville Sun was there nice
in giving us full coverage, leading into the opening, they just gave
it to us. The man came down to speak, and out of all that
advertisement we had about fifty people come to the grand opening.
I knew then that we were in trouble.
B: You mean to tell me that your blacks were just not there.
W: No, we did not have but fifty people come to the grand opening and
they heard the man speak and that Friday when I went into those
stores after the grand opening I shook my head, and I went back
that Saturday at the grocery store every once in awhile you would
see somebody coming by and I said, this thing is a failure. Right
now, it is a failure.
B: Why do you think that you did not have the support from your black
community? Was it too far way for the people?
W: We were right in the center of the largest black community, Sugar
Hill, Lincoln Estate, and you had more people certainly. There
were several reasons, but I would like to see a younger generation.
B: Do you think that same effort, can be undertaken and be successful
W: I tell you what has to be done. Everything that is associated with
the failure of black business, every reason for the failure needs
to be documented, analyzed and a solution needs to be found for
every one. A lack of courtesy is one of the main reasons why black
businesses failed, that needs to be dealt with. A lack of
operating capital. A type of traditional upward mobility, hatred,
that seems to be embedded in black people for each other. That
needs to be dealt with and a solution to it because it is a fact,
from the stand point of black business, that needs to be dealt
with. Black people with the idea of competing with black people in
terms of business, has to be dealt with. You have to compete with
everybody to make a business a success. Because when you have
fifteen per cent of the population and much of that percentage is
black, it is almost doomed for failure. You have to think in terms
of say, people, and competing with everybody to make a business a
success. All of those things have to be dealt with. If it is a
grocery store, you have got to say that I am going to be as good as
Publix or better. That is what the Japanese have done, see.
B: What new project does Thomas Wright want to undertake now?
W: Well, right now Thomas Wright has written a book on pre-marital
counseling, it had been critiqued, and I am taking the critique
very seriously. I am going to have to rewrite it. The critic was
a professional and Dr. Hasi is working with me on it. I am
anticipating another book on world religion. I have jotted down
some points on that. It is going to require a lot of discipline
and writing and rewriting. And I think that just might be my last
B: What about a book on the life of Thomas?
W: I do not know if that would be a good book.
B: Well, I have enjoyed talking to you today sir. I would like to get
back and discuss the role of the church in the past, the role of
what it was when you came here, and where you see it going from
here. Are the black churches the only body that we have that is
still black or pegros own?
W: It is just about the only thing that we really own and control in
the black community, the black church. But there was nothing else
that we really control and inspite of all of the remarks that the
black church gets, the black church along with the black preacher
is still about the strongest combined force in the black community,
that is black.
B: How did the community respond to Thomas Wright with such a large
church, you have built in this area of town, what was the response?
From both the communities, black and white?
W: The people are very nice in this community.
B: That has been a plus I bet.
W: Yes, they are very nice and many of the people in the area are
members of other churches, but they are very good part-time members
of our church in terms of their attendance and contribution. We
have some strong friends of the church and I think its because of
the sacrifices that we have made to do this and they realized that
it was a tremendous undertaking and we have some strong friends at
B: How was the response of the white community, for this is such a
large beautiful edifice that you have here.
W: Well, I feel like occasions and it is strange really the way that
they approach it, they say "Oh, you are the minister of that
church." Yes, I know what they have in mind. There have been
contributions from a lot of caucasions. I gave the people a
challenge last month, I said to them, I said to them, "Listen did
you realize the amount of money that the friends of the church give
to the church. We ought to show some kind of special appreciation.
Do what the schools do, let us take it upon ourselves to match the
money that the friends of the church give to the church." So for
the last two or three weeks we have been doing that, I would get up
and say now this week we have $200, let us match this, take up an
offering. We have been very successful so far in matching what the
friends of the church give to the church. That wing right there,
it was not finished on the inside, it is going to take $13,000 to
finish it and we had trouble finding a contractor who would do it
in sections. Here is a full service operation now, so, I know him
well, he knows me well. So, he said we will do it Reverend Wright
in sections, about $4,000 in thirds, broken down in three different
sections. And I said to them the matching money that you give
matches the money that the friends of the church give, we will use
it for that wing. The man had just finished the first third of the
$13,000. So the Lord is blessing us.
B: Well, I hope you are not planning to go anywhere soon, leave
W: I am not going to be leaving Gainesville, but I will probably be
retiring in a couple of years Mr. Buchanan.
B: Will you, to do what sir?
W: To write.
B: Thank you sir and may I return for the second half of the Thomas A.