HISTORY MAKER: LEDONIA S. WRIGHT
Activist for minority health and education, and cultural center namesake
A proponent of the health and wellness of minority and low-income populations, North Carolina native Ledonia Smith Wright was a trailblazer.
Born on Jan. 5, 1930, in Rockingham, she went on to graduate from Shaw University in 1949 with a degree in chemistry and education. Wright then attended North Carolina Central University, where she earned her Master of Science in public health in 1951.
She accepted a position with the Guilford County Health Department that same year and was responsible for establishing health education programs for the area’s minority populations.
Wright was unstoppable, moving to Buffalo, New York, in 1953 to work for the Roswell Park Memorial Institute, where she conducted experiments in ketosteroid therapy and other general biochemistry research before being promoted to the cancer research division the following year.
In 1955, Wright became assistant director of health education for the Erie County, New York Health Department, where she helped establish the Epilepsy Association for Western New York and oversaw public health educational programs.
She moved again in 1956, this time to Boston to accept the position of chief admitting officer for the Tufts University School of Medicine, and later became an instructor in the Department of Preventative Medicine. It was in that role that she managed the home care service program, which used the skills of fourth-year medical students to provide home care for indigent patients.
Wright continued to work in the Boston area — for multiple private and public entities, all involving community health improvement, particularly for low-income populations — until 1974, when she returned to North Carolina.
East Carolina University’s dean of the then School of Allied Health and Social Professions, Dr. Ronald Thiele, had extended an offer to Wright, and she became a teaching faculty member in the school’s Department of Community Health.
She taught and developed community health courses for undergraduate and graduate students and also served as a technical advisor to the larger Division of Health Affairs.
Wright continued her work with the minority population and the area’s underprivileged, organizing Health Career Days in Elizabeth City and Kinston, participating in the North Carolina Society for Public Health Education and embarking on a 17-venue tour of historically Black colleges to promote community health in 1975.
Notably, on East Carolina’s campus, Wright helped organize the Society of United Liberal Students (SOULS) and served as the group’s first faculty advisor. The student organization sponsored the first Black History Week on campus and led the initiative to establish the Afro-American Cultural Center in the building known as the “Y-Hut.”
Wright’s feverish pace concerned Thiele and her department chairperson, Donald R. Dancy, and both recommended she take time to rest to improve her health.
But Wright was not one to remain idle. She pressed forward with plans to embark on a recruitment tour during the summer of 1976.
Sadly, Wright drowned in June 1976, and the campus was shaken to learn of her tragic death. To honor her contributions to East Carolina, the Afro-American Cultural Center was rededicated as the Ledonia S. Wright Afro-American Cultural Center. It was later renamed the Ledonia Wright Multi-Cultural Center.
Once housed in the Bloxton House near the campus mall, the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center, also known as LWCC, is now housed in the Main Campus Student Center on East 10th Street.
The LWCC is a structured venue for minority students, a gathering place to meet and socialize. It remembers Wright as a popular and respected figure on campus, whose “entire career was spent finding ways to ease human misery and raise the level of aspiration among those with whom she worked.”
The Ledonia S. Wright Memorial Scholarship, established in her honor, is awarded each year to a student who demonstrates leadership and commitment to service through extracurricular activities or community service, with additional consideration given to first-generation college students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds — just like those Wright helped throughout her distinguished career.
Sources: ECU Heritage Hall’s Ledonia Smith Wright profile and ECU Joyner Library Desegregation website