News and Information

Pioneering professor, activist John Wright retires

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Departments of African American & African Studies and English at the University of Minnesota have announced the retirement of Professor John S. Wright after 35 years of exemplary faculty service. 

Wright earned three degrees from the U: Ph.D. in American Studies and the History of African Peoples (1977); MA in English and American Literature (1971); and BEE in Electrical Engineering (1968). 

His service to the U precedes and extends beyond his years as a professor. As an undergraduate and graduate student, Wright was instrumental in the 1969 Morrill Hall takeover by the Afro-American Action Committee.

Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, as an undergraduate member of the group’s executive committee, he drafted the list of seven demands that ultimately led to the establishment of an African American Studies Department and special advising and counseling resources for Black students after administrators agreed to most of the students’ demands the day after the takeover.

The Department of African American & African Studies began offering courses in 1970, followed by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Program supporting historically underrepresented communities, which Wright directed for three years while a graduate student. He then left the University to develop a major in African American & African Studies at Carleton College, where he served as chair and associate professor of African American & African Studies, and as associate professor of English (1973-84).

In 1984, Wright returned to the University as a professor in the department he helped to initiate, with a joint appointment in English. He received recognition as a CLA Scholar of the College 1987-1990, along with national research awards from the NEH and Ford Foundation and from the Bush Leadership Program.

In 1981, novelist Ralph Ellison nominated him for a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 1998, he received the highest award for undergraduate teaching at the University, the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education.

His activism for equity and diversity at the University has remained unbroken in recent years. Wright served on the Advisory Board for the provocative University Libraries 2017 exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942.” 

The exhibit demonstrated that University administrators deliberately maintained segregated housing for undergraduate and graduate students and oversaw political surveillance of Jewish and other politically active students.

At a panel introducing the exhibit, Professor Wright spoke poignantly about his aunt, Martha Wright, a School of Technology math major at the University in the 1930s, who as president of the Council of Negro Students helped lead the protests against Lotus Coffman administration policies that barred Black students from living in campus dormitories and participating fully in campus life.

“A Campus Divided” led directly to President Eric Kaler appointing a committee of historians, faculty, students, and alumni — including Wright — to examine the U’s troubling history and to arrive at appropriate responses. The committee’s 2019 report recommended renaming four University building and, as Wright urged, exploring additional contemporary reforms “beyond naming”; but controversies with the current University Board of Regents remain as yet unresolved.

As a scholar, Wright has focused on African American and African cultural, intellectual, and literary history, oral tradition, and cultural movements such as the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement.

In the course of spearheading the acquisition in 1985 of the Archie Givens, Jr. Collection of African American Literature, and serving as its Founding Faculty Scholar for over 30 years, he helped superintend the NEH-sponsored first nationally touring exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance, mounted in partnership with the Weisman Museum.

He has edited multiple critical series of African American classic texts and created a jazz and poetry ensemble, The Langston Hughes Project — Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, with which he performed nationally for a decade. Wright has published expansively on the life and work of Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, resulting in his book Shadowing Ralph Ellison (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

Wright has multiple writing and research projects in progress as he transitions into retirement.

— Information provided by the University of Minnesota.

Look for a full story on Professor John Wright’s legacy in a future edition of the MSR.

Perspectives

"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.