“You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing.”- Oscar Wright
In front of rooms of people, be it at a large school board meeting in downtown or at a small continuation school in East Oakland, I’ve witnessed him introduce himself before—and always does it the same way: by stating his name, his age and the fact that he is a “proud African American man”.
He has always introduced himself in that manner—the only thing that has changed is his age.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught up to the 91 year-old Oscar Wright, and had a one-on-one conversation about some of the things he has experienced in his lifetime.
We sat inside his living room. A living room where the walls are covered in plaques, framed notes signifying accomplishments and photos of Wright posing with politicians, educators and family members.
We talked for an hour. And in that brief time, he told me about his role in getting Emeryville to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Holiday in 1986. He showed me the speech he delivered at a conference on the Philadelphia Plan in 1970; and how that was the catalyst to Affirmative Action. He briefly mentioned how he and Medgar Evers were not only on the same college football team, they were roommates freshman year, as well.
On top of everything, he gave me insight as to how his childhood lessons around sharecropping and doing construction in Mississippi lead to him becoming an advocate for the educational rights of African American children. And to this day, he’s an education advocate; not just at the local school board meeting, but to the President of The United States of America. And when Mr. Wright writes, the President writes back.
“You put the big foundation down, you can go up a lot of stories,” Mr. Wright did a hand gesture as best he could with his elderly shaky palms. He continued, “you put a shabby foundation down, and there’s a limit, you’ve got a limit as to where you can go from there.”
He spent his childhood working in Mississippi for white man who owned a dairy farm. One conflict between his boss’ son and Mr. Wright, lead to Mr. Wright’s enrollment in the Army. He says it was then that he grew to know who “Uncle Sam” really was. While serving time in the armed forces, Mr. Wright was stationed in Burma. It was there he made a friend who encouraged him to attend college once he was done with the army.
“And when I got a discharged from service, on November 23rd of ’46,” Mr. Wright recalled the date without missing a beat, “I went home, and fortunate for me, my father, he had gone from a sharecropper to non-contract work. And he got a lot of work!”
Mr. Wright used this introduction to the world of carpentry, and built on it. After assisting in his father’s dreams of getting the construction business rolling, Mr. Wright left for college. He got accepted to Alcorn State, an all African American school that specialized in agriculture and mechanics in Mississippi.
“We learned a lot of farming, how to do agriculture, blacksmithing, brick masonry, carpentry, sheet metal, electricity,” said Mr. Wright, who admitted that he wasn’t the best student, only earning one A his entire college career. He continued, “In other words: they trained us to do what they wanted us to do.”
Mr. Wright was mad that he was underprepared due to his lack of educational opportunities as a juvenile, and more upset that his college curriculum was created by the white power holders.
He said it was that experience that lead him to look at curriculum and the way young people are taught, and raise questions.
As he went through life, he married twice and had six kids, two of whom have passed. Mr. Wright moved from Mississippi to San Francisco for job opportunities, but he never stopped building on the concept that bothered him in college: the malignant construction of the education system.
To this day, Mr. Wright can sit on his couch and point around his house at things he has constructed, including a large portion of his actual house. In that same living room where Mr. Wright often sits, where all of the historical pictures hang on the walls, there is a table. And on that table there is a handbook. Inside of that handbook is the outline for the State of California’s Public Education Curriculum, the most recent edition.
After talking and walking through Mr. Wright’s personal museum, I asked him a couple of questions… the first: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Mr. Wright responded, “Oh, I had a good family and I made a way for my wife. And you know? God has been good to me. I made a good living for myself, my family, and helped other people out.”
I followed by asking him the same question I ask every elder gentleman I interview: If you had the chance to talk to young people, and give them some wisdom, based on your life experiences, what would you tell them?
“I’d say love yourself. And respect yourself. And have confidence in yourself. And never forget the roots from which you came; that you can do anything. God gave you the ability to think and reason, and put you beyond any other creature on earth. God gave man the ability to think and reason, and the right to choose. I’d tell those youngsters, ya know, for every choice there is a consequence. And in order to be in successful in anything in life, it requires hard work, discipline and perseverance. You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing. So, stay the course. And there is nothing that you can’t do— with God being put first, you can do anything.”- Oscar Wright.