College founder Elizabeth Evelyn Wright was born on August 18, 1872 into a large family near Talbotton, Georgia. Her parents were Virginia Rolfe, a full-blooded Cherokee, and Wesley Wright, an African American carpenter. Both Elizabeth’s parents were former slaves. Elizabeth was raised, however, by her uncle and her maternal grandmother, who was deeply religious and a devout member of the Episcopal Church.
Wright’s family moved into Talbotton when she was ten, giving her greater educational opportunities. A northern teacher took interest in Wright and recommended that she apply to Tuskegee Institute run by Booker T. Washington. She enrolled when she learned that her education would be financed by Massachusetts judge George W. Kelley. At Tuskegee, Wright’s role models were Booker T. and Margaret Murray Washington. The Washingtons inspired Wright’s commitment to uplifting and educating African Americans, which led to her interest in teaching.
Wright left Tuskegee temporarily in her senior year to spend three months teaching in Hampton County, South Carolina. Wright’s break in school was also prompted by her history of poor health, which interfered with her ability to work on the school’s physically demanding projects. When Wright resumed her studies at Tuskegee, Mrs. Washington gave her lighter duties, and after Wright’s time off she was able to graduate with the class of 1894.
Wright then returned to Hampton County to establish a colored school. Her first attempt failed when local hostile whites destroyed the school building. She attempted to establish schools three more times, walking between five to 20 miles daily gathering support for her cause. This effort weakened Wright’s health.
Denmark, South Carolina was the town where Wright finally found success. In 1897 she found a twenty-acre plot that belonged to U.S. Senator S.G. Mayfield, and with Booker T. Washington’s support, Mayfield sold Wright the land for $2,000. Wright raised the down payment through donations from offerings from 33 churches and from individuals from the surrounding community. As she was raising money, she temporarily opened her school in a room above an abandoned store. Although many organizations and philanthropic groups offered to help Wright cover the school’s debt, Wright refused their aid because she wanted the school to maintain its independence. Wright named the school the Denmark Industrial School for Colored Youth.
By 1900 the school needed to be expanded, and Wright found a 280-acre plot belonging to Dr. S.D.M. Guess. Guess originally asked for $3,000 but later raised the price to $4,500. Wright changed her stance on large donations and asked New Jersey philanthropist Ralph Voorhees for assistance. He provided the support in 1902 and Wright and the trustees renamed the institution after him.
Although Wright’s health worsened during construction, she oversaw the completion of the new Voorhees Industrial School. Modeled after Tuskegee Institute, the new school opened in 1902 and provided coeducational schooling for black elementary and high school students.
In 1906 Wright married fellow Tuskegee graduate and Voorhees’ treasurer Martin Asabee Menafee. Wright’s health continued to deteriorate and she died later that year on December 14, 1906 at the age of 34. Her legacy continued as the Voorhees Industrial School became a junior college in 1929 and later Voorhees College, a private four-year institute. In 1923 Voorhees Industrial School became affiliated with the Episcopal Church.