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Analysis

Jonathan Jasper Wright: America’s First Black State Supreme Court Justice

Wright joined the South Carolina Supreme Court after the Civil War and was forced out as Reconstruction ended, the only Black justice in U.S. history for nearly a century.

February 18, 2022
Jonathan Jasper Wright
Library of Congress/South Carolina Supreme Court/Getty

Jonathan Jasper Wright, the coun­try’s first Black state supreme court justice, was sworn into his seat on the South Caro­lina Supreme Court in 1870. A second Black justice did not reach a high court bench in any state until nearly a century later, when Otis Smith joined the Michigan Supreme Court in 1961.

Wright’s tenure was inter­twined with the rise and fall of Recon­struc­tion in the South, a period when Black Amer­ic­ans tempor­ar­ily gained legal and polit­ical oppor­tun­it­ies that would be stripped after a campaign of white polit­ical viol­ence surround­ing the 1876 elec­tion and the install­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Ruther­ford B. Hayes in 1877. As a polit­ical leader and a justice, Wright contrib­uted to the creation and inter­pret­a­tion of new state laws, defin­ing — and surpris­ingly, some­times narrow­ing — the rights of recently freed Black South Carolini­ans. But he was forced to resign amid scan­dal when Recon­struc­tion ended, many say unfairly.

Wright was an attor­ney from Pennsylvania and the son of two formerly enslaved parents. He traveled to South Caro­lina in 1866 as an employee of the Freed­men’s Bureau, provid­ing legal assist­ance to formerly enslaved people in the state and even­tu­ally becom­ing a prom­in­ent polit­ical and legal figure.

Wright and another Black attor­ney, William Whip­per, were the first Black attor­neys to appear before a legal tribunal in South Caro­lina. Wright also served as a deleg­ate to the South Caro­lina state consti­tu­tional conven­tion in 1867, ran and lost a campaign for lieu­ten­ant governor in 1868, and shortly after was elec­ted as a state senator. He was among nine others who were South Caro­lin­a’s first Black state senat­ors.

In Febru­ary 1870, Wright was elec­ted by the state legis­lature to fill a vacancy on the South Caro­lina Supreme Court. Wright, considered the more conser­vat­ive candid­ate, ran against and defeated William Whip­per, who had support from radical Repub­lic­ans. Strik­ingly, Wright’s tenure on the court included several rulings that restric­ted the rights of Black South Carolini­ans. Many of these decisions conflic­ted with the polit­ical commit­ments he had expressed as a deleg­ate to the consti­tu­tional conven­tion and as a state senator. In the case of Russell v. Cant­well, for example, a freed Black man accused a white man of mali­cious prosec­u­tion that had occurred before the Civil War. Wright denied the claim, arguing that formerly enslaved people did not gain rights retro­act­ively after eman­cip­a­tion and warn­ing against the “flood of litig­a­tion” that would ensue if such remed­ies were made avail­able.

One of Wright’s most note­worthy votes was in dissent against the valid­a­tion of unveri­fied elec­tion results. The 1876 general elec­tion, in South Caro­lina and across the South, had been preceded by a campaign of voter intim­id­a­tion and viol­ence orches­trated by white Demo­crats. Despite cred­ible reports of ballot box stuff­ing and voter suppres­sion on Elec­tion Day, Demo­crats peti­tioned the South Caro­lina Supreme Court to prohibit the state Board of Canvass­ers from invest­ig­at­ing the valid­ity of the elec­tion results. The court sided with the Demo­crats, with Wright in dissent. Follow­ing a series of events which involved jail­ing the Repub­lican members of the Board of Canvass­ers for contempt of court, Demo­cratic and Repub­lican candid­ates for the state legis­lat­ive and gubernat­orial races both declared elect­oral victory.

Demo­crat Wade Hamp­ton’s claim to the South Caro­lina governor­ship ulti­mately reached the South Caro­lina Supreme Court indir­ectly, in the case of Ex Parte Norris. At issue was Hamp­ton’s purpor­ted pardon of pris­oner Tilda Norris. In a 2–1 ruling with Wright in dissent, the court ruled that the pardon was legit­im­ate, thereby valid­at­ing Hamp­ton’s claim to the governor’s seat. Wright’s dissent was met with outrage: a local news­pa­per asked, “[Was] it right, Wright, for you to take your salary with your left hand while you denied the Governor’s right with your right?” In Febru­ary 1877, on the same day as the Ex Parte Norris decision, the Elect­oral Commis­sion form­ally voted to recog­nize Ruther­ford B. Hayes as the next pres­id­ent of the United States and federal lawmakers agreed to remove federal troops from the South, a comprom­ise that led to the end of the era of Recon­struc­tion.

SC legislature Library of Congress
Racist propa­ganda assailed members of South Caro­lin­a’s Recon­struc­tion legis­lature as “radical” — includ­ing Jonathan Jasper Wright — noting that he later joined the state supreme court.

The tide turned quickly against Wright. In May 1877, the new Demo­cratic major­ity in the state legis­lature passed a resol­u­tion call­ing for an invest­ig­a­tion into him. The legis­lat­ive commit­tee tasked with invest­ig­at­ing Wright heard testi­mony assert­ing that he had accep­ted a bribe to change his vote in a case, but it never found evid­ence prov­ing this claim. After 10 days of secret hear­ings, the commit­tee presen­ted a resol­u­tion call­ing for impeach­ment, citing accus­a­tions of “drunk­en­ness.” Amid impeach­ment proceed­ings, Wright resigned.

These accus­a­tions followed Wright for the rest of his life. Upon his death in 1885, a national legal journal published an announce­ment read­ing, “it is scarcely neces­sary to say that his published opin­ions do not give evid­ence of much legal learn­ing or abil­ity.” Later, histor­i­ans ques­tioned these alleg­a­tions: in 1933, Robert Woody wrote in an essay about Wright that “there are several factors which lead to the conclu­sion that Wright was not guilty of the charge.” More recently, histor­i­ans have docu­mented a broad effort to discredit the accom­plish­ments of Black lead­ers during the Recon­struc­tion era. One modern histor­ian of post-Recon­struc­tion histor­ical writ­ing noted that “African Amer­ican accom­plish­ments were ridiculed or ignored alto­gether, while racist-inspired terror­ism was white-washed.”

Wright played a crit­ical role in estab­lish­ing South Caro­lin­a’s legal struc­ture during a period of revolu­tion­ary change to Amer­ican demo­cracy. His removal from the court resul­ted in part from a campaign of white voter intim­id­a­tion and elect­oral fraud, which led to Demo­crats regain­ing control of the legis­lature. For decades, his legacy was dimin­ished and largely writ­ten out of history, as was the exper­i­ence of many Recon­struc­tion-era Black lead­ers and politi­cians.

Almost 150 years after Wright’s impeach­ment, with a lack of diversity on state supreme courts still a seri­ous prob­lem, his complic­ated legacy as a trail­blaz­ing jurist remains timely.