SMYRNA — In 1981, Delaware elected its first African-American mayor, George C. Wright Jr., to the town of Smyrna. Only 20 years before, David Buckson, who was the attorney general of Delaware in the 1960s, reportedly called race relations in Smyrna “the worst in the state.’’
Mr. Wright died on Dec. 21, at the age of 85. At the time of his death, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons said “His hard work, perseverance and dedication will truly be missed.”
Mr. Wright was educated in Delaware and Maryland schools. He launched his career as the director of the Head Start Program in Smyrna. Drafted into the Army in 1952, he served for two years in one of the first race-integrated units.
From 1956 to his retirement in 1989, Mr. Wright devoted his time to a career at the Dover Air Force Base, helping with a variety of duties, such as offloading trucks in the aerial port. He was later named chief of staff for the Civilian Personnel Office Affirmative Employment Section, and he ended this career holding the second-highest position as a non-military civilian.
From the beginning of his political career, Mr. Wright met resistance. In 1958, he made his first bid for a seat on the Smyrna City Council. For four consecutive elections he was unsuccessful. He told the Delaware State News years later that he was advised at that time not to use his picture in the campaign, because there were three other George Wrights — all white — who lived in the area. If people thought he was one of them, he might get more votes, the rationale went.
He chose to ignore this advice, saying, “I wanted to be elected by my own skills — not because they thought I was someone else.”
On his fifth attempt, his persistence paid off, and he was finally elected to serve on the council. He held the seat for 12 years.
“He was an honest and distinguished individual, who was an asset to the town of Smyrna.” said former Mayor Joanne Masten.
Despite the resistance he faced, Mr. Wright remained driven, and he was eventually elected in 1981 to serve as the first black mayor in the state — winning by a mere 20 votes.
“If you look at the numbers, I should have never been elected in the first place,” Mr. Wright told The New York Times, in a 1985 interview.
He served for six terms until his retirement in 1995 — running unopposed in all but one of the elections.
“Even my adversaries, they might not always agree with me, but they could trust me,” Mr. Wright said.
After his tenure as mayor, he served as executive director of the Delaware League of Local Governments for 23 years. In this capacity, he represented all 57 cities and towns in the state while traveling throughout the country. He was one of two people to ever be elected from Delaware on the Board of National League of Cities.
“George did a wonderful job as league director. He was the face of the league for 23 years,” said Carl Luft, the current director of the League of Local Governments and a friend of Mr. Wright’s. “He was a prophet for local government,”
Working alongside Mr. Wright in the league, Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange called him both a “warm” and “moral” leader who was committed to their mission.
“Even after retirement he would show up to our meetings,” said Mr. Petit de Mange. “He was a great mentor. He was a warm, genuine friend and a moral leader for many. He also knew how to relax and have a good time.”
Mr. Wright took steps to continue helping his local community on a smaller scale, taking in many volunteer programs that supported the youth. He was also responsible for helping to raise money for the construction of the Pitts Center, a recreational facility in Dover.
Don Blakey, a former state representative and Kent County Levy Court commissioner, noted that Mr. Wright was an asset to the community in both a political and philanthropic sense.
“As mayor, he provided strong leadership and guidance in all things governmental for his constituents,” said Mr. Blakey.
“After leaving the mayor’s seat, he continued working for all Delawareans in various ways. He could always be counted on for support and guidance when I was the president of the Kent County Levy Court. He will be sorely missed. For several years, George and I were an umpiring team for Kent County Slow Pitch softball. When he called you “Out! or Safe!, you knew it. George was a formidable coach of baseball for the local Negro League teams we played for too.”
Mr. Wright’s leadership abilities and passion for community service were officially recognized many times throughout his life. In 1996, the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce presented him with the Buchanan Award for his outstanding citizenship and service to the community. Upon receiving the honor, he explained how he wanted to be a role model for generations behind him.
During his travels across the country, Mr. Wright emphasized to children that they do not need an “established home” to be successful, using himself as an example; “My mother had a fifth-grade education and my father was an alcoholic — that had nothing to do with my character.”
In 2014, the town of Smyrna saw to it that the George C. Wright Jr. Municipal Park was named in his honor.
Mr. Wright was able to overcome many barriers and hoped children were inspired to follow in his footsteps.
Working with the church was another one of Mr. Wright’s many passions, as he was an active member of the Bethel AME Church in Smyrna.
Wright told the Delaware State News that his political efforts were for the people and he wanted to remind them that even though they appear physically different, they “really aren’t very different.”
Although once advised to hide his race to increase his chances of gaining public office, he was eventually embraced by his constituents, Smyrna and the state.
Levy Court President P. Brooks Banta said Mr. Wright, his “lifelong friend,” had a way of winning people over.
“I knew George for mostly his entire life,” said Mr. Banta.
“He was a true leader and the people of Smyrna had the utmost respect for him. He was the kind of person that anyone can talk to, that would be happy to talk over your issues and would be happy to just sit down and talk to you. He was a visionary. He served admirably. He didn’t look at one or two blocks. He looked at the whole community.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Larlham Jr. and Meghana Lodhavia are members of the Dover High journalism club, which partnered with the Delaware State News for this project.