The American Civil War exacted a terrible price on America as a country as well as for so many individuals. Sophie Bell Wright was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 5, 1866, into a family that had lost everything during the Civil War. Little did they know how their young daughter would change not only their lives, but the lives of so many others.
When Sophie was three, she fell and severely injured her back and hip. She was strapped into a chair for six (some sources say ten) years. Finally, she was able to walk using a brace and a cane. She went to school and received a grammar school education before family finances, which obviously never improved significantly over the years since the war ended, dictated that she help earn money to support the family. When her attempt to find work as a teacher failed, in 1881 she started her own “select school for girls” in her mother’s living room. Sophie was fifteen years old. Her sister, Jenny, also taught in the girls’ school. Later the school became known as the Home Institute and continued in operation until 1928.
But in 1885, a stranded acrobat pleaded with her to teach him. I picture him standing on her doorstep, hat in hand, begging her to help him learn to read and write, hope shining from his serious eyes. Whatever the actual situation, she agreed to teach him at night, and that idea eventually blossomed into New Orleans’ first free night school. The night school operated until 1909 when New Orleans opened a night school of its own. By then, Sophie’s school had taught more than twenty thousand men and boys. That’s a whole lot of people she helped!
But she did more than teach, which is admirable enough. She also advocated for prison reform and started a Home for the Incurables. The city awarded her the Loving Cup for her community service. A school and a street are named in her honor, and a pretty little park on Magazine Street in New Orleans features a sculpture of her.
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