Charles Howard Wright was born in Dothan, Alabama. He attended Southeast Alabama High School. The school had few resources, only four teachers, and no heat or indoor plumbing. He graduated in 1935 without even taking a biology or calculus class. Inspired by his mother and driven by his own strength of mind, Wright was determined to become a doctor. He entered Alabama State College (now University) and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1939. That fall, Wright headed to Meharry Medical School in Nashville and realized his dream, receiving his medical degree in 1943.
From Meharry, Wright traveled to New York to become an intern and pathology resident at Harlem Hospital. He then accepted a second pathology residency at Cleveland City Hospital, which he completed in 1945. The following year Wright moved to Detroit and went into private practice as a general practitioner, before deciding to go back to Harlem Hospital when a spot in their obstetrics and gynecology residency program opened. He became a board certified OB-GYN specialist and a general surgeon in 1953.
In 1953, Wright returned to Detroit and became the first African-American physician at Hutzel Hospital, then a women’s hospital in Detroit. He later became a senior attending physician and stayed with Hutzel until he retired in 1986.
His position led him to fight for the equality of his patients. Wright wrote a letter to state senator Phil Hart, exposing Hutzel’s segregation practices. The hospital would not allow Wright’s black patients to be admitted in rooms with white patients, and it did not accept black interns or residents. “So I wrote [senator Phil Hart] and told him, ‘Don’t send them a dime,” Wright was quoted as saying. And I said, ‘now you don’t have to come at any time, any particular time to check on it, come any time and see for yourself.’ And he sat down and sent copies of everything I said to him to the chairman of the board of trustees at Hutzel. He said, ‘Dr. Wright is accusing you of this. Is it true?’ Well, he made such a noise until he might come and look. And did you know the next day they were integrated?”
During his career as a physician, Dr. Wright delivered more than 7000 babies.
Though Wright was already establishing himself as an exceptional activist and physician in Detroit, he sought to do more. In 1960 he spearheaded the African Medical Education Fund through the Detroit Medical Society to raise money to train African medical students in America. In the 1960s Wright traveled to areas including Bugalusa, Louisiana to serve as a resident physician during the civil rights marches and to Cartegena, Columbia to serve on a floating hospital named S.S. Hope. He also served as a medical missionary in Africa.
When Wright’s travels allowed him time away from work, he collected artifacts from across the globe. His collection of African artifacts prompted his 1965 decision to convert the basement of a west side Detroit home that he owned into a black history museum. He named it the International Afro-American Museum (IAM). IAM became a traveling museum a year after it was founded. IAM toured the state in a converted mobile home seeking to form a connection between citizens and their history. It was not long before the museum was gaining recognition with field trips and media coverage. Soon it became apparent that Wright needed assistance running the popular museum, so he hired a full-time director. Wright paid about $1, 000 each month to support his small staff and to cover the museum costs.
Wright was passionate about sharing black history with others—especially his patients. “I’d bring healthy babies into the world and I’d see them later and they’d be psychologically scarred,” he was quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press. “I saw we had to do something about society—and the museum was an effort to do that.”
By the mid 1970s Wright had to his credit not only his career as a doctor and accolades as the founder of a unique museum, but he was also an assistant clinical professor at Wayne State University, a playwright, an author, and the producer of several medical recruitment films. In addition to serving at Hutzel Hospital, Wright had been a senior attending physician at Sinai Hospital.
In 1985 Wright’s wife died, but he found love again after meeting Roberta Hughes, while collecting information on her father—an African American radiology specialist. Hughes was also widowed. A relationship blossomed between Wright and Hughes, and they married several years later.
In 1985 IAM and the City of Detroit formed a partnership to build a new facility for the museum. The partners secured $3.5 million for a new facility in Detroit’s University Cultural Center. In 1987 the museum, which had been renamed the Museum of African American History, moved to a new 28, 000 square–foot building.
While museum affairs flourished, Wright found himself increasingly “out of the loop” with the operations and matters of the museum that he founded more than two decades earlier. Wright ended his official association with the museum in 1990 after a disagreement with then–mayor Coleman Young about plans to build a larger, more brilliant museum site. Plans went on without Wright, and in 1997 an extraordinary building with brass doors, a glass dome ceiling, stone walls, and an amazing wealth of historical content opened to the public. The museum became the largest of its kind in the world, and its annual budget went from about $1.6 million to $7.8 million.
A year after it’s opening, the $38.4 million building was rededicated, this time with a gesture to mend burned bridges with Wright. His name was added as a prefix to the museum name, which became the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The museum was “the most difficult delivery I ever made.” Wright was quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press.
On March 7, 2002, Wright died at the age of 83, in a Southfield, Michigan hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was survived by his wife and two daughters from his first marriage—Stephanie Jeanne and Carla Louise. Wright’s visitation was held at the museum. Hundreds of people—family members, friends, politicians, former patients, and even strangers, showed up to pay their last respects.
Dr. Wright committed his entire adult life to fighting for freedom, justice and equality for all. He challenged discriminatory practices in the health care industry, put himself in harm’s way by directly participating in the civil rights struggle, and developed a philanthropic program to provide financial support to African medical students.