Civil Rights Activist, Founding Member of the NAACP
Gertrude Wright Morgan grew up experiencing and demonstrating Black excellence from her earliest days. But she also knew first-hand the societal and personal injustice and cruelty White people could inflict on her, her family, and her people. For the rest of her life, she pushed the boundaries drawn tightly around her as a Black person—and especially as a Black woman—working to expose and fight against White supremacist calumny and oppression and to create opportunities for coming generations of African Americans and all women. She would play vital roles in Black intellectual and cultural life in St. Louis, Missouri, and then Boston and Cambridge; in the creation of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP; and also in the women’s suffrage movement. But, partly because she was more a doer than a writer and mostly because she was a woman, her role in these important historical shifts hasn’t received enough attention.
Gertrude Wright was born in 1861 in Springfield, Illinois, the daughter of Thomas Wright and Sarah Fortune Wright. Thomas had been born enslaved in North Carolina and most likely was moved with his enslavers to Kentucky and then to the area around Huntsville, Missouri. We don’t know the circumstances, but Thomas somehow gained his freedom, and perhaps the freedom of Sarah and one or more of their children, in the 1840s. Over the next decade, he bought property in Missouri and in and around Springfield, eventually becoming a large landowner and respected farmer, with an impressive house in the city’s center. But this prosperity belied the pain of slavery that still weighed heavily on the family: in 1857, Thomas put together his own money and money contributed by friends and acquaintances to purchase the freedom of his 18-year-old son, George William Wright, still enslaved in Randolph County, Missouri. George’s enslaver refused to sell him, and Thomas used the money to buy the freedom of his own brother, Richard, instead. Most likely, other members of Thomas’s and Sarah’s families remained enslaved in Missouri, and Gertrude would have grown up knowing her family’s recent past and may also have remembered celebrations when they gained their freedom during the Civil War.
In 1874, Gertrude entered Springfield High School as its first Black student. Although she was friends with some White students, others shunned her. Three years later, she graduated third in her class and gave a speech at graduation that was printed in local newspapers. (Her brother Willis was valedictorian three years later.)
After graduation, Gertrude moved to St. Louis, where she taught at Charles Sumner High School, which had opened in 1875 as the first high school west of the Mississippi for Black students. The faculty was a gathering of Black intellectuals from around the country—many teaching high school because they were refused higher academic positions due to racism. They led literary, history, musical, and art appreciation societies. So beloved by students was Gertrude that, in 1892, she was honored by the St. Louis school board as one of the fourteen most popular teachers in the entire city.
Clement Morgan, from Washington, DC, also taught at Sumner during Gertrude’s first few years there. In 1883 or 1884, he left to attend Boston Latin and then Harvard College and Harvard Law. After being elected and reelected to positions in Cambridge City government, he went back west to marry Gertrude in 1897, and the two returned to Cambridge to set up housekeeping first on Lincoln Street and eventually at 265 Prospect Avenue.
The decades following the undermining of Reconstruction saw an upsurge in White supremacist rhetoric and action across the North as well as across the South. The year before Gertrude and Clement married saw the Supreme Court issue its infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Tens, if not hundreds, of letters must have crossed from Gertrude to Clement and back again between the time Clement left St. Louis and Gertrude came to Cambridge; it’s impossible to believe that the two wouldn’t be discussing events, ideas, and theories regarding past, present, and future. By the time they married, they were mature adults, deeply immersed in literature, history, and politics. Financially independent, Gertrude had no need to marry, and she would never be a submissive wife, or, indeed, a submissive woman in the public sphere. Clement brought his intellect, energy, and legal expertise to the marriage; Gertrude brought her own intellect and learning, leadership skills, and money. As a team, they became core members of the developing civil rights movement.
Gertrude and Clement’s home on Prospect Avenue became a central site of early-twentieth-century Black activism. Close friends and comrades included W.E.B. Du Bois; William Monroe and Geraldine Pindell Trotter; Maria Baldwin; Pauline Hopkins; Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Florida Ruffin Ridley; as well as older and eventually younger members of the Boston-Cambridge and national Black activist community pressing for full and equal rights in all fields. This stance put them at odds with the accommodationist reformer Booker T. Washington and his associates, and the pitched battles between these two camps shaped Black political thought for decades.
The Morgans—Clement as attorney and public face and Gertrude working often behind the scenes—were involved in nearly every important civil rights action of the 1900s and 1910s. By 1905, Clement, with Gertrude backing and probably funding him, was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement. And when William Monroe Trotter, one of the other main, all-male founders, objected to two prominent women being admitted to the Movement, Gertrude publicly upbraided him. She prevailed.
Gertrude Morgan (left) and Gertrude with her husband Clement Morgan (right top and right bottom).
By 1906, the Niagara Movement accepted women as full members, and Gertrude was appointed national secretary for women. As she probably had been for years, she was a leading letter writer, lobbyist, and fundraiser. She was also an active promoter of African-American art, culture, and literature, and, true to her career as a teacher, a leader in instilling cultural pride in Black children.
In 1908, a White mob attacked Black individuals, homes, and businesses throughout Gertrude’s native Springfield. The violence in Springfield took place less than two years after similar attacks in Atlanta, where Du Bois and other Niagara Movement founders lived. The Springfield riot—taking place in the North–led directly to the establishment of the NAACP. Gertrude and Clement soon became key members, as did many of their Niagara Movement colleagues.
The Niagara Movement officially supported women’s suffrage. Not surprisingly, given her life story, Gertrude had long been a crusader for this civil right. She travelled the states talking to women’s clubs and other groups promoting women’s rights. She was the president of the Women’s Era Club and a senior member of various other women’s and Black rights groups right into the last decades of her life. In 1915, she took part in her community’s strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to ban the showing of D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation in a Boston that increasingly turned away from its proudly abolitionist culture and ignored its Black citizens.
Clement died in 1929. In 1931, Gertrude died. We still know relatively little about the details of her involvement in many important events. Nor do we have much direct evidence of her thoughts about these events or about the many significant people she worked with. We can only hope that more documents related to her personal and advocacy lives eventually surface.
This biographical portrait was prepared by Leslie Brunetta and James Spencer, 2020
James Spencer family archive
Angela Jones, African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
George Thorndike Angell, founder of the MSPCA, was born on June 5, 1823 in Southbridge, Massachusetts. He was the son of a schoolteacher and a Baptist minister. (more…)
Once considered one of the most influential state judges, Lemuel Shaw was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts on January 9th 1781. For most of his early life, Shaw was educated at home by his father and in 1796 he was admitted into Harvard University. Shaw began his life-long career studying law in 1801 under David Everett, a well-established New England newspaper editor. In 1802, Shaw accompanied Everett to New Hampshire where he could assist with legal paperwork. There he met his first fiancee, Nancy Melvill, the daughter of the famous Major Thomas Melvill of Boston. The engagement was short-lived as Nancy passed away soon afterward.
Shaw was admitted to the Plymouth County Massachusetts bar in November of 1804 and began practicing law in Boston. With his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1811, his participation on the Constitutional Convention of 1820, and his election as State Senator in 1821, Shaw slowly climbed the legal ladder to eventually assume the Chief Justice position on the Massachusetts State Supreme Court where he served from 1830 to 1860. There are a number of defining cases on Shaw’s court that continue to stand out through history. One of these such cases is, Commonwealth V. Aves (1836) which dealt with the transportation of slaves into free states.
In 1836 Mary Aves Slater arrived in Boston to visit her father, Thomas Aves. Accompanying Mary, was a six year old slave girl named Med who was deemed the property of Mary’s husband. When members of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society heard the young slave girl was in Boston they hired a lawyer to sue the Aves family for her freedom. They argued that since slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts and Med’s owner willingly brought her to a free state, she is no longer a slave. Shaw wrote the unanimous decision for the court stating that “Slavery was contrary to natural right” and that any slave brought to Massachusetts could not be forcibly detained or removed. This precedent was used across many northern states to advance legislation that stated that any free state automatically guarantees freedom to any person within it’s borders, including individuals considered to be slaves in the south.
Another case Shaw ruled on that continues to capture the morbid interest of generation after generation is famous murder case, The Commonwealth V. Webster (1850). The details of the case begin with a debt owed to beloved socialite, George Parkman from a Harvard Medical professor, John Webster who was constantly dogged by financial instability. Webster had guaranteed Parkman a loan collateral of a cabinet full of valuable minerals in exchange for $400. Parkman soon found out that Webster had used this same cabinet of minerals as a collateral for a different loan.
George Parkman had tried to collect the money Webster had earned from giving his medical lectures from Harvard University in order to pay back the $400 debt Webster had accrued. This type of public humiliation enraged Webster so much so that shortly after, George Parkman disappeared. In the case hearings, evidence was brought to Shaw’s court that Parkman’s remains were discovered by a suspicious janitor who began chiseling through a hollow-sounding wall in Webster’s office after hours while his wife kept watch. The janitor found a secret compartment behind the wall. Adjusting his lantern, the janitor was able to see the charred remains of George Parkman. The Parkman-Webster murder case is one of the earliest cases on record that used forensic dental evidence to identified partially cremated human remains.
During the trial of John Webster, Lemuel Shaw stated for the jury one of the most famous historical outlines of the legal principle of “reasonable doubt”,
“The evidence must establish the corpus delicti, as it is termed, or the offence committed as charged; and, in case of homicide, must not only prove a death by violence, but must, to a reasonable extent, exclude the hypothesis of suicide, and a death by the act of any other person. This is to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs and depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor.”
The jury convicted Webster of the murder of George Parkman and on April 1st of 1850 Lemuel Shaw handed down the indictment saying: “That you, John W. Webster, be removed from this place, and detained in close custody in the prison of this county; and thence taken…to the place of execution, and there be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may God, of His infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”
After 30 years of an influential career, Shaw resigned from his bench and, shortly after, he took ill. Within a few months after his retirement, he passed away and was buried at Mount Auburn on Harebell path.