Saturday, February 7, 2009

Giles R. Wright, my Dear Friend & Mentor, In Memoriam

With deeply felt sadness my post today is to let quilters know  my dear friend and Black History scholar Giles R. Wright, Jr.* passed away Thursday, Feb. 6 at a hospital in his home state of New Jersey. He leaves behind his wife and son. Giles had a serious stroke in May 2008 and then other complications came into play, changing his life forever. He was never able to return to the work he loved to do on behalf of African American history at the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Giles was one of the most gracious men I have known, in person and in other communications. Socially he was so warm and funny, as well as intelligent and charming. I had a wonderful time with him in Philadelphia.  Email and occasional phone calls were our main form of communication, being that we live on different coasts. He was very serious about getting the facts out about New Jersey's Black history and the history of all African Americans. His integrity brought forth mindfulness for logic and truth in everything he read about slavery and of the oppression of African Americans.

RunawaySlaveSymbol Giles became one of the leading voices among professional historians in states along the Underground railroad and was often invited to speak and to write on the subject. He did not seek the limelight. He spoke professionally but was discriminating about interviews with the media and did not agree to many requests, yet he was often quoted by the media. "He had become a very influential person in the history of blacks, especially because of his book, "The History of African Americans in New Jersey," Mappen said. "Giles had very firm standards of proof. . . He was a very careful researcher, very careful in his writings. He wanted to make sure it was accurate." (Black News Tribune, Feb. 5, 2009)

He is best known to the quilting community for his work in dispelling the misinformation about quilts being used as signals for fleeing slaves along the Underground Railroad. Over the years, he and I discussed and the effects of misinformation and  greed on society's view of slavery. He was pained by the misinformation that abounded at times, and jubilant when a mind was changed to tell historical truth. His awareness of the "quilt code" came after he read the book that put the myth out as fact, Hidden in Plain View, by Tobin and Dobard. ""Some black quilters have accused me of denying our heritage. I'm trying to protect it," Mr. Wright told The Star-Ledger in an interview three years ago, just before his once-controversial conclusions became embraced by most historians." (Black News Tribune, Feb.5, 2009)

"Relying on the oral history of one family, without corroboration from other sources. is what offends historians like Giles Wright, an Underground Railroad expert who works for the New Jersey Historical Commission. 'The Underground Railroad is so rife with distortions and misinformation, and this is just one more instance when someone comes across folklore and assumes it's true,' he says." (Time, April 3, 2007)

Giles and I would read a book about the Underground Railroad or slave's narratives and then discuss it. He taught me so much, and helped me see and feel the ownership of one human over another that was so horrific I never wanted to go there, but with Giles to talk to and to lead the way, I felt those feelings and allowed the evilness of slavery to come into my consciousness and stay there. Giles changed me by making me feel the injustice of any situation where one human takes ownership over another, changes their name, rapes them, or separates them from their children and family members, to benefit themselves. In one email he told me that he and other Blacks did not have the same respect for our founding Fathers as I did because they were slave owners.

We also enjoyed talk about politics.  Early on, before others spoke much about it, Giles was thrilled with the possibilities he saw for the US if Barack Obama were to be taken as a serious candidate. Because of my utmost respect for Giles and his astute intellect and perception, I paid more attention to Barack. Giles was one of the first people I told when I changed my backing from Hilary to Barack. He told me was surprised, and not.  Giles came to know that Barack would prevail and become our next president long before the rest of us did. He saw the leadership and  light in Barack and he was of the belief that this would help to change our world to be a more honest, peaceful and loving place. Giles signed all of his emails to me with Peace.

Giles' friendship and respect for me was such a gift. He respected many people and told me about them, always giving credit where credit was due and telling me who was especially important to pay attention to and believe.  He was not competitive or mean spirited toward others, he was proud of his colleagues' accomplishments and their contributions to historical research and current events. He supported them and left the others alone. He stood up for truth as a historian for New Jersey , but he was a truth-seeker. I miss talking with him so much, and now I know for sure that we will not talk through the computer again, but we will talk through spirit.

*Black News Tribune  includes a *photo* of Giles, "Giles R. Wright Jr.,renowned scholar of African American History, dies at 73"

New Jersey News has published a tribute to Giles that goes beyond the usual obit, the title says it all  "A Scholar Who Settled Only for the Truth."

This would have been the busiest month of the year for Giles, for it is Black History Month. Additionally, in 1981, he co-founded the Marion Thompson Wright lecture series for scholars and humanists from across the nation. This annual event has become one of the most prestigious forums of it's kind for public scholarship and civic discourse. 

Giles R. Wright is now an important part of that history. May he rest in peace.

In gratitude and love,

Kim Wulfert

Should you want to send a condolence card to his wife, I will be the middleman. Send to my name  at  226 W. Ojai Ave. Suite. 101, #107, Ojai, CA  93023

To read the interview  Giles and I did together, discussing the people and  known facts about the Underground Railroad

and the critique of Hidden in Plain View that Giles wrote and presented when he became aware of misrepresentations it contained and put forth as if factual

for more information about the Underground Railroad and quilts see http://www.antiquequiltdating.com/UGRR_index.html

4 comments:

Mishka said...

Kim,
I'm so sorry for your loss of such a dear friend. He sounds like such a wonderful man and will be sorely missed by the quilting and black history communities.

Thanks for sharing with us your pain and also joy for having known such a wonderful person.

Hugs,
Michele

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry for the loss of this great gentleman and scholar. My condolences to you and the family.

Gloria Miele said...

Condolences on the loss of such a special man in your life and a great scholar. It touches me that he passed during Black History month. Thank you for sharing these personal and historical memories.

Gloria

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing Giles with your community. He was a phenomenal human being, and I will miss him dearly.

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