Nadine Fortune Wright (1893 – 1994)

August 1, 2020

Educator and Activist

Nadine Fortune Wright was born into plenty on August 9, 1893. Her parents, Willis Wright and Mamie Drake Wright, were well-educated teachers. Her Wright grandparents, Thomas and Sarah Fortune Wright, were among the most financially well-off people in Springfield, Illinois, owning farmland in that state and Missouri and substantial property in the center of town. The newspaper announcement of her christening told of a large celebration and many wonderful gifts bestowed by family and friends.

However—always a huge “however” in the United States—Nadine and her family were African American, and their prosperity therefore couldn’t protect them from state-sanctioned crimes that would inspire her lifelong activism and achievements. The life story of Nadine’s mother, Mamie, is as yet obscure, her family roots unknown. She is believed to have been Native American. What is known is that she had received enough education to be teaching school when she met Nadine’s father, Willis. Willis knew that his father, perhaps his mother, at least one brother, and a number of other relatives had been born into slavery and that his father had worked for years to free as many as he could. Willis’s parents were able to make sure that their younger children were well educated—Willis’s older sister Gertrude had integrated Springfield High School and Willis himself graduated from Springfield as valedictorian.

Goodman’s parents, Mamie Wright (left and center) and Willis Wright (right). Private collection.

Nadine thus began life riding what must have seemed a trend toward not only greater prosperity but also potentially greater freedom and wider prospects for African Americans. But both personal tragedy and a resurgence of racism in Springfield affected Nadine and her family. Her father died in 1899. His family was able to support her and her younger brother, Bruce (also known as Brewster), but Springfield itself was changing. Nadine’s family had been well known and well respected in Springfield for decades, but with the city rapidly growing as European immigrants and White southerners moved in, racist resentment against African Americans in general and particularly against well-to-do African Americans like the Wrights became threatening. When Nadine’s mother Mamie died in 1906, the family decided to send Nadine and Bruce to Cambridge to live with their aunt Gertrude, who had married Clement Morgan.

Nadine and Bruce were thus living with their aunt and uncle as Gertrude and Clement worked to found and develop the Niagara Movement. The two youngsters lived in a house that was one of the centers of Black intellectual and political activity, and they no doubt at least listened in on conversations between the Morgans and the many thought-leaders who convened on Prospect Street. In 1908, White mobs attacked Black individuals and businesses in Springfield—including the Wrights’ property–in one of the signature 20th-century events of racist violence. Largely in response, the NAACP was founded, which Gertrude and Clement soon joined as leaders.

Nadine graduated from Cambridge High and Latin and went on to Radcliffe, where she graduated in 1917. As a student, she continued to take part in the family tradition of civil rights work, for example joining her aunt and uncle, their colleague W.E.B. Du Bois, and many others protesting the showing of the racist movie Birth of a Nation in Boston.

After her graduation from Radcliffe, Nadine taught in the Cambridge public schools for close to twenty years. During these years, she chartered the Boston Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She was also a trustee of the Robert Gould Shaw house in Roxbury and oversaw that organization’s acquisition of the Breezy Meadows Summer Camp in Holliston, where she served as vice president and assistant treasurer from 1932 to 1940. In 1938, she married William Goodman, a college-educated Black man from Macon, Georgia, who worked for SS Pierce and Co. of Boston. Married women were not allowed to teach in the public schools, so Nadine had to move on. She became a member of the faculty at Bennett College in North Carolina and then Dean of Women at North Carolina A&T before returning to Boston. In the 1950s, she taught both children with cerebral palsy and brain-injured adults. She later established Norwell Pines, a summer camp in Norwell for children with cerebral palsy. Nadine and Bill were childless but considered all the children who attended their camp as their own. Nadine Wright Goodman died on July 25, 1994, aged 100.

This biographical portrait was prepared by James Spencer and Leslie Brunetta, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.