Thursday, June 05, 2008

June 5: Sophie Bell Wright (1866-1912)

[Visual description: A statue of Sophie Bell Wright, in New Orleans. Against a background of trees, there's a grey seated figure, leaning a bit to her right, wears a shawl and long skirt; she is seated, holding a book.]

Sophie Bell Wright fell, hard, when she was three years old. It was 1869, and in her time and place (New Orleans), there wasn't much to be done for the little girl's injured spine and pelvis. The home solution? She was strapped to a chair for the next few years, in the hopes that immobilizing her would bring healing. At age 9, she was able to get around on crutches and wearing a steel brace; for the first time, Sophie attended school. Five years later, Sophie B. Wright (like a lot of 14-year-olds) was tired of being a student. So she opened her own "Day School for Girls," using some discarded benches to furnish a room in her mother's house. By 18, she was renting a larger space to accommodate all her pupils, and she had opened a free night school for (white) daytime workers, too.

Sophie Bell Wright worked for temperance, playgrounds, and prison reform, and was president of the New Orleans Women's Club. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1897, she suspended classes and turned her schoolrooms into makeshift infirmary. She published a collection of essays based on her advice to students. In 1903 the Times-Picayune made her the first woman honored with their "Loving Cup" for outstanding social contributions. In 1904, she raised funds to build a home for "crippled orphans" in the city, and later raised funds to expand a specialist hospital. In 1912, a city school was named for her, the first public building in the city named for a woman, shortly before her death from heart disease at age 46.

The statue of Wright pictured above was created by Enrique Alferez and erected in 1988, in Sophie B. Wright Park in New Orleans. Her nearby home is also a historic landmark.

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