Lawyer Gives USC a Gift With a Message
Born the son of a former slave in Louisiana, Crispus Attucks Wright, 83, rose from hawking newspapers on Central Avenue to become a Los Angeles attorney who helped win the fight to outlaw racist real estate covenants.
But for law students who commit to work for America’s poor, this quiet and easygoing lawyer and businessman might become known for something more than his professional achievements.
His generosity may well pay their tuition.
Wright has given $2 million to his alma mater, the University of Southern California’s Law Center, to establish a scholarship in his name.
His gift is the sixth-largest ever made by an African American to an American university, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“I felt that this would aid USC in recruiting minorities, particularly African Americans or anyone who wants to serve in underserved areas,” Wright said.
And his donation was partially prompted by his distaste for the recent state ban on affirmative action, Wright said.
“How we like to think that we’re fair about everything,” said Wright, speaking in the elegant Wilshire District home where he has lived for 50 years. “Inequities based on race come into the picture regardless of the law.”
Administrators at USC law school said the donation underscores the university’s commitment “to pursue the minority community.”
Associate Dean Robert M. Saltzman said the Wright scholarships could go to “an applicant who has grown up in the nearby neighborhood . . . or to a student who wants to work for the NAACP legal defense fund or a public interest agency in Watts or South-Central.”
Seventy-five of the 600 students enrolled in the law school are black, administrators say, and about 40% of this year’s entering class were minorities.
The first Wright scholarships will be awarded at a dinner in Wright’s honor Sept. 30, said Associate Dean Tom Tomlinson, a historian studying Wright. Wright’s donation places him in the highest tier of prominent black philanthropists. At the top: Bill and Camille Cosby, who gave $20 million to Atlanta’s Spelman College, and attorney Willie E. Gary, who gave $10 million to Shaw University in North Carolina.
For Wright, the endowment was an attempt to keep racial integration moving forward.
“When I was in law school, there was a point where I was the only black student there,” he said.
When Wright visited USC decades later, he was pleased to see scores of African Americans on campus. But now, with the retreat from affirmative action, Wright says the inequities of his youth are resurging.
“The cycle has come around to where it was,” he said.
As a young boy, Wright came to Los Angeles with his dying father, who wanted to live his final days in what was then the Southland’s cleansing, dry air. Restrictive real estate covenants that barred blacks from buying in many neighborhoods forced the Wrights into South Los Angeles, he said.
Years later, when Wright was building his current home in Country Club Park, the discrimination was just as blatant.
“An elderly gentleman came up to me and begged me not to build my house,” he said.
Wright’s father, a graduate of Louisiana’s Leland University, instilled in him a drive to rise above racism through education and a strong sense of his own black heritage. The elder Wright had named his youngest child after Crispus Attucks, a free black man who in 1770 became the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was shot to death at the Boston Massacre.
As an adolescent, Crispus Wright sold newspapers at the fabled Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue. During an NAACP convention there, he met his hero, Harvard-educated civil rights pioneer and writer W.E.B. Dubois, the dean of African American intellectuals.
“I was in shock at being able to sell a paper to him,” Wright said. “I had such a high opinion of him that I couldn’t express myself. I didn’t talk.”
Wright attended UCLA back when it was located on Vermont Avenue. He then went to USC law school while working at a drugstore and the Vernon Branch Library. His decision to donate to his old school was partially inspired by the $50 scholarships that helped him through law school.
When he hung out his shingle on Central and Vernon avenues in 1940, blacks weren’t allowed to join the Los Angeles Bar Assn.
But Wright gradually rose up through the ranks of his profession. In 1943, he co-founded the John M. Langston Bar Assn., which remains the principal black legal association in Los Angeles. He later helped a team of attorneys representing the NAACP prepare for the legal fight that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the late ‘40s that restrictive real estate covenants were unconstitutional.
“Wright’s was a successful practice which served, and yet transcended, both race and culture,” Tomlinson said. “He functioned unostentatiously and was not someone who sought to practice in the public eye.”
While practicing law for 50 years, Wright also owned a prosperous Los Angeles mortuary and eight convenience stores. During the 1980s he also owned the Los Angeles Sentinel, Southern California’s oldest continuously published black newspaper.
His endowment, he said, makes him proud.
“This is a joy--to feel that you’re helping to some extent,” he said. “You feel that your life hasn’t been in vain.”