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Sophie B. Wright

Sophie Bell Wright was a teacher, philanthropist, and reformer in New Orleans who advocated for prison reform, temperance, public playgrounds, and the education of women and the impoverished.

Sophie B. Wright

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sophie B. Wright. Boston "Monitor" (newspaper)

Born into a once prosperous family that was financially ruined by the Civil War, Sophie Bell Wright was a teacher, philanthropist, and reformer in New Orleans. She advocated for prison reform, temperance, public playgrounds, and the education of women and the impoverished. Wright was both handicapped and poor, yet despite those setbacks she opened her own school for girls at a time when most women didn’t work outside the home and formal schooling for working-class young women was undervalued. She also taught free classes for the poor in the evenings, an undertaking that inspired a future system of free night schools in New Orleans. In 1903 Wright received the Daily Picayune’s Loving Cup, which, since 1901, has been awarded to community members for their philanthropy. A school and a street in New Orleans are named after her, and a statue of Wright, sculpted by Enrique Alferez, was installed in a park on Magazine Street in the city’s Lower Garden District in 1988.

Early Years

Wright was born June 5, 1866. Her father, William Wright, was a veteran of the Confederate Army. Her mother, Mary Bell, was from a family of Southern planters. Like many Southerners, the Wrights lost their fortune during the Civil War. To make matters worse, Sophie badly injured her back and hips in an accident when she was three. For seven years she was confined to a wheelchair. When she was able to hobble on crutches, she attended school for the first time.

At the age of fourteen, in 1880, Wright opened a facility, which she called the Day School for Girls, in the front room of her mother’s cottage. Lacking funds for new materials, she borrowed some unused benches and desks from a public school. The school was designed for young girls who had not reached eighth-grade academic standards. For this service Wright charged fifty cents a month per pupil, making $10 a month.

By the time she turned sixteen, Wright was teaching in public school, maintaining her day school, and studying foreign languages. In 1883 her school was chartered as the Home Institute. A year later, Sophie’s school for girls had become too crowded to be held at her mother’s home, so she leased a bigger house. Over the next several years, Wright hired a principal and a staff of teachers, and she added boarding facilities.

First Free Night School in New Orleans

Not until 1916 was compulsory schooling the law in Louisiana. In the late nineteenth century, poverty forced many children to work at mills, factories, or farms. And there was no public night school in New Orleans.

In the early 1880s, a twenty-five-year-old recently unemployed man who had worked as a circus acrobat inspired Wright to open another school. Penniless and looking for an education in order to apply for a civil service job, he knocked on the door of Wright’s school for girls. Sympathetic to his plight, she agreed to teach him for free in the evenings, and thus began New Orleans’s first free public night school. Wright’s only two requirements were that the applicant must be employed during the hours when day schools were open and that the pupil must be too poor to pay. The school was well attended by the swelling population of immigrants.

Soon Wright had to relocate her school again to accommodate the number of working-class pupils who attended at night. She chose the 1400 block of Camp Street because it was close to mills, factories, foundries, and shops where her students worked. She spent the majority of her resources on the free night school, so by the time she had to move locations, she couldn’t afford the building. She borrowed $10,000 for the down payment.

Yellow Fever Outbreak

In 1897 the yellow fever epidemic hit New Orleans. Schools, mills, and factories were closed because so many of the city’s residents were quarantined. Healthy residents were afraid to go near the afflicted to give them aid. Wright turned her schoolhouse into a supply depot for the sick and stocked food, clothes, and medicine. She distributed the goods in town and kept her office open for people to pick them up.

Wright was broke after the yellow fever outbreak, and her mortgage was in danger of being foreclosed. To save the school, a New Orleans banker took the mortgage from the moneylender, reduced the interest, and lent her $10,000. She also received a $2,000-a-year stipend from two wealthy donors. With the money, Wright bought desks, pictures, books, and other school supplies.

In the years after the yellow fever outbreak, her free night school grew exponentially. In December 1897 she had 300 pupils. By the next year, there were a thousand and then twelve hundred the year after that. She expanded her staff to forty teachers. In 1904 she added two hundred female applicants to the night school. By that time Wright’s school was offering algebra, geometry, calculus, mechanical drawing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and other courses.

Home for Incurables

In 1903 Wright also made plans to build the Home for Incurables, an institution for crippled children. It marked the first time in Louisiana that someone created a public institution for disabled orphans. Wright financed the school in part from the King’s Daughters, a service organization that has traditionally supported children’s hospitals, literacy programs, and daycare centers. In the early 1900s, when the home was opened, Sophie was the state secretary for the King’s Daughters.

Beyond her duties as a school headmistress, Wright also worked on prison-reform efforts and helped expand public playgrounds in the city. She was also president of the New Orleans Women’s Club.

Daily Picayune’s Loving Cup Award

In 1904 Wright became the first woman to receive the Daily Picayune’s Loving Cup, which had been awarded since 1901 solely to male philanthropists. She received the award at a gala festival attended by thousands in Audubon Park. With the award, Wright got another surprise: a letter with a certified check for $10,000. New Orleanians had raised that money to pay off the mortgage on her school.

In 1912 Wright became the first woman in New Orleans to have a public building named after her, the Sophie B. Wright School. It was the first modern building for a public high school for girls in the city, and it remains open to this day.

Wright died from heart disease at the age of forty-six on June 10, 1912. She is buried in Metairie Cemetery.