Robert Wright felt immense pride and a touch of pain during a recent tour of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
As chairman of the blue-ribbon commission charged with planning the museum, Wright’s panel produced the 2003 report “The Time Has Come,” which laid out the administrative and creative vision for the $540 million facility.
But as he went floor by floor viewing the museum’s historic artifacts and displays, Wright’s satisfaction at finally seeing the project realized was tempered by the emotional power of the exhibits.
“It was a combination of emotions,” Wright explained. “A lot of pride. But some sadness too. When you look inside an actual slave cabin or when you see the guard tower at a prison in Louisiana, or when you see a railroad car with ‘black’ and ‘white’ seating, a lot of those things were very real in my life because I came up in the segregated South.”
The son of a bricklayer and a nurse, Wright attended segregated Spencer High School in Columbus, where he also frequented segregated theaters, stores and restaurants as part of a soul-crushing social system designed to squash his pride and stunt his dreams.
When he graduated high school in 1955, Wright had to leave the South entirely in order to escape systemic discrimination and study optometry in college, at Ohio State University.
He would later return to his hometown to practice, become active in the civil rights struggle, forge a career in politics and serve in the Reagan administration before starting his own defense contracting company, Dimensions International Inc. in 1985. The company, which grew to 100 offices and 1,500 employees in 10 countries, was acquired by Honeywell International in 2007 for a reported $230 million.
Wright’s segregation-to-success story embodies the same spirit of triumph as the museum he helped create.
When it opens Sept. 24 as the Smithsonian Institution’s 19th museum, expect the U.S. slave trade and its incalculable harm on generations of African-Americans to be thoroughly documented.
But the museum will also celebrate black Americans’ perseverance and progress over withering oppression and recognize their contributions, which have helped define the American experience.
“It’s a history that’s long overdue to be told,” said Wright, the chairman emeritus of Virginia-based Sentel Corp. and a member of the museum’s advisory council. “Our history has never been told in conjunction with everybody else’s history. And we feel that we’ve accomplished so much in this country since we were brought here against our will. Those things need to be told so that we all understand where we came from and how far we’ve come.”
He applauds the donors who helped the museum surpass its goal of $270 million in private contributions.
A fundraiser several months ago at actor Denzel Washington’s home raised $17 million, Wright said. Hoops mogul Michael Jordan recently donated $5 million. Oprah Winfrey, the museum’s largest donor, has provided more than $20 million. A 350-seat theater in the museum will bear Winfrey’s name.
Wright was a board member with Columbus-based Aflac when company CEO Dan Amos pledged to be the first company to donate $1 million to the project.
“That was a strong statement on his part,” Wright said of Amos, who made the donation in 2005. “He said, ‘We believe in this project. We believe in what you’re doing and what the commission is doing and we’re going to step up.’”
Wright will be among the VIPs when President Barack Obama cuts the ribbon on the museum in front of an estimated 20,000 people on Sept. 24.
Wright’s name will also be featured at the museum, along with those of other commission members whose groundbreaking report got the project rolling in 2003.
Seeing the report displayed at the museum was a sweet moment for Wright.
“That was emotional,” he said. “Things that I personally touched, like that report. That was emotional.”
Calls for a museum on the National Mall recognizing the African-American struggle date more than a century.
A long time coming
In 1915, the Grand Army of the Republic, a civil war veterans group, created a “Committee of Colored Citizens” which formed the National Memorial Association to push for a museum that recognized America’s black war veterans and the cultural contributions of African-Americans.
But World War I, racial opposition in Congress, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II kept the project from going forward.
Meanwhile Wright, after graduating from the College of Optometry at Ohio State University in 1960, returned to Columbus and tried to get a job at Fort Benning, which was looking for optometrists. “Once they found out I was black, they said, ‘Oh, those jobs don’t exist anymore,’” Wright recalled.
After several friends were arrested for trying to integrate local buses, Wright began attending meetings where black community leaders in Columbus planned to integrate lunch counters and public facilities. “I just jumped in and got active,” he said. “I became a community activist.”
In the late ’60s, he was planning to run for city council as a Democrat when a group of young “enlightened” Republicans, including former Columbus Mayor J.R. Allen, convinced him to run as a Republican in 1970. Wright won three straight city council elections with overwhelming black voter support.
That caught the attention of the Republican National Committee, which asked him in 1976 to help other GOP candidates trying to make inroads with black voters. His efforts earned him a place on President Ronald Reagan’s transition team in 1980. Reagan later appointed Wright as associate administrator for minority small business at the Small Business Administration.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and my work at SBA gave me an opportunity to broaden my horizons and my knowledge in terms of government business,” Wright said.
After leaving the SBA, Wright formed Dimensions International, which became a successful defense contractor.
As his stature, wealth and political influence grew, Wright was named to an assortment of public and private boards, held a variety of banking management positions and earned numerous awards, including the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2001.
The following year, Wright was tapped by former Congressman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., to serve on the museum commission, which was established by law in December 2001 to provide President George W. Bush and Congress with an implementation plan for the museum.
Wright recalled congressional hearings along the way where funding, site location and even the need for a separate African-American museum were debated.
Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., introduced more than a dozen bills calling for the museum, while Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an opponent of the project, questioned whether the museum would elicit similar requests from other ethnic and minority groups.
“It was a process, but ultimately we were able to prevail,” Wright said.
Now retired, Wright continues to serve on a variety of corporate boards and pursue a number of philanthropic endeavors.
But he said helping the museum go from a dream to a 400,000-square-foot building on the National Mall — right next to the Washington Monument — was one of the high points of his career.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Wright said. “There couldn’t be a better location. It’s right where we would want it to be, on the front yard of America.”
Tony Pugh: 202-383-6013, @TonyPughDC