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Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers


Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

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Nellie Rathbone Bright spent her early years in Savannah, Georgia, where she was born on March 28, 1898, the only child of the Rev. Richard Bright and Nellie Jones Bright. She was named for her mother and grandmother as well as for her godmother, Caroline Rathbone, a social activist who remained a friend of the Bright family throughout her life. Rev. Bright, the first black Episcopal priest in the Savannah Episcopal diocese, was born in St. Thomas, then part of the Dutch West Indies, in 1866. He was educated at St. Augustine Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Episcopal Theological seminary in New York, where he graduated in 1891. Nellie Jones, from Louisville, Kentucky, was educated in Europe as a teacher after she was denied entrance to schools in the United States. Together, the Rev. Bright and his wife Nellie established the first private kindergarten and primary school for blacks in Georgia in 1892. After serving the Savannah diocese for almost twenty years, the Rev. Bright moved his family from Savannah to accept an appointment in Philadelphia.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Nellie Rathbone Bright earned her eighth grade graduation diploma in 1910 from Stanton Public School. She then obtained a diploma as a grade school teacher, with a special certificate in sewing, from William Penn High, Normal Teacher Training School, in 1916. Bright continued her education in 1919 when she entered the University of Pennsylvania, where she became a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1923. Bright also pursued research at the Sorbonne and Oxford, as well as art studies at the University of Vermont and the Berkshire School of Art in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts.

While working as a young teacher in the Philadelphia schools, Bright also participated in the black intellectual renaissance that was flourishing in many large cities at that time. She co-founded and contributed to the literary magazine Black Opals established in the late 1920s to encourage black writers. During this period she also furnished articles to other literary magazines intended to encourage black authors. Bright also wrote on black history and black education in early Philadelphia.

After more than a decade of teaching in the Philadelphia public schools, Bright accepted an appointment as a principal in 1935, an office she held at various schools in Philadelphia until 1952. From 1952 until 1959, at the direction of the Board of Education, she taught in-service courses on black history for other teachers. The classes were held at The Fellowship House, an advocacy group promoting racial tolerance and civil rights.

During her years as teacher and principal, Bright served on over fifteen civic boards or organizations directed toward improving schools and neighborhoods by encouraging open housing, improvements in city health services, and facilitating cooperation among diverse members of society. In 1970, at the age of seventy-two, Bright co-authored a children’s book of social history, American -Red, White, Black, Yellow. During her lifetime she received numerous awards for her educational and civic leadership efforts, most notably a certificate from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, dated June 10, 1972.

Bright was fluent in French and Spanish and traveled extensively in the Caribbean and Europe, making her first trip at the age of four when accompanying her parents to her father’s birth place, St. Thomas. A painter as well as a writer, Bright depicted travel scenes in oil paintings. Bright remained single all her life, and died February 7, 1977.

The Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers consist of three principal components supplemented by a smaller, but important, assemblage of photographs as well as notes on family history. One of the main components offers a biographical listing of dates of major milestones in Bright’s life, such as graduations and civic awards, prepared by her in 1973 for entry into a publication, A Biographical Dictionary of Living Black American Writers, published by R.R. Bowker. Another comprises a scrapbook documenting the work of her father, the Rev. Richard Bright, first as an Episcopal priest in Savannah, Georgia, and later, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The third major component contains 146 pages of letters, the majority of which were written by Nellie to her father. There are also photographs of the Brights, their ancestors, and close family friends; six lithographic prints; and miscellaneous ephemera. Index cards containing a short genealogical survey of the Bright family, and which also cite instances of racial violence directed against her mother’s family, make up a smaller, but notable component of the collection. Nellie Bright’s biographical listing, her father’s scrapbook, and family correspondence offer insight into the Bright family experience. Her father’s scrapbook, with newspaper articles referencing his work, articles addressing issues important to blacks at that time, church programs detailing a congregation’s activities, or simply news of the family’s travels, all serve as a landscape against which to view Nellie Bright’s own later list of accomplishments.

The scrapbook articles require careful reading, for while they follow a fairly consistent chronology, they often lack dates and names of publication. In addition, information pertaining to the Rev. Bright’s early years as a student will appear in later articles offering a brief review of his career.

For example, background on the Bright family’s friendship with Caroline Rathbone, a white woman, who later became his daughter’s godmother, appears in an article detailing Rathbone’s funeral, held in Evansville, Indiana. A black man’s officiating at a white woman’s funeral produced the column headline, “Colored Man to Take Part in Funeral at St. Paul’s Church” announced in The Evansville Courier, December 23, 1901. The article mentions that Rev. Bright was once Rathbone’s Sunday School student in New York. The article has a condescending tone, referring to Rathbone as Rev. Bright’s “benefactor,” and as the woman who “taught him the real meaning of life.” The scrapbook offers few references to Nellie’s mother. There is a brief (undated) wedding announcement early in the book, and later a death notice dated December 17, 1914, which appears on the same page as several articles concerning the death of Mrs. Bright’s father, Q.B. Jones, in 1894.

Even though they lack detailed biographical data, the articles provide a representative portrait of the Rev. Bright in his capacity as Episcopal priest. Many articles reference his reputation as an excellent speaker and often provide a summary of his chosen sermon topics. One clipping reported a sermon preached July 4, 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American War. In this sermon, Rev. Bright contrasted what he termed “true” and “false” patriotism. He criticized “certain members of Congress who have shown their lukewarm patriotism by crying out for war, but when war was declared, they were not to be seen among those who went to the front.” The Rev. Bright encouraged his congregants to lend their support to the war if necessary: “There was no time when the colored people had shirked their duty to their country.”

Other articles indicate Rev. Bright was also a respected author of religious pamphlets, and the Episcopal newspaper, Church Advocate, in an edition dated August 12, 1893, published a column in which he argues for the church’s continuing investment in education. Additionally, the scrapbook contains a certificate from the Library of Congress dated March 2, 1900, registering “St. Stephen’s Catechism” prepared by Rev. Richard Bright in 1892.

Letters written to Nellie’s father while she studied sketching and painting at the University of Vermont in the summer of 1928 shed light on her accomplishments as an artist; Nellie writes of being praised for her work by her instructors.

In the summer of 1929, Nellie studied at the Berkshire Summer School of Art in Monterey, Massachusetts. In both Vermont and Massachusetts, it is notable how Nellie’s experience of being, presumably, one of very few Black students was essentially a positive one. She speaks highly of her classmates and the kindnesses shown her. Also apparent in the letters is her strong affection for her father, whom she invariably addresses as “My dear sweet Papie.”

Although Bright’s own papers offer few clippings documenting her work, those available complement the biographical listing of her life as an educator. An article announcing her first appointment as principal in 1935 offers insight into other possibilities open to her. The article (no date or name of publication) contains a subheading, “Appointment To Hill School Comes As A Surprise,” and notes that Bright had expressed a desire “to withdraw from the field and retire to a foreign country.” Bright, possessing talents which included foreign language and writing skills, demonstrated capabilities reaching beyond education. However, Bright accepted this appointment as principal and served as principal of two other schools until retiring in 1952.

After 1952, Bright offered courses on black history at the Fellowship House in Philadelphia. In 1970, at the age of 72, she and fellow Penn alum Arthur Huff Fauset co-authored American--Red, White, Black, Yellow, a book for children and young adults on the history of minorities in the United States. A flyer advertising this book is included in her papers.

The collection includes a list of awards recognizing her efforts to improve the learning and living environment of her students. An article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1950, refers to her recent Fellowship Commission award and quotes Bright: “I believe all people can work together, especially to help themselves…[W]hile striving for a common goal, racial and religious differences are forgotten.” Another clipping notes that Bright will be recognized “in the forthcoming housing feature in the June issue of Color magazine.” Other awards recognizing her leadership abilities include her 1957 appointment to the Mayor’s Scholarship Committee, the 1970 National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service award (mentioned in her notes) and a 1972 certificate inducting her as a member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

Photographs in the collection include one of Bright upon her graduation from Stanton School and two undated photographs taken as an adult. Other photos of Bright show her as a principal with students on the occasion of their earning a television set for the school (1952), and with Bill Coale, whom she notes as a friend and co-chair of the Germantown & Chestnut Hill Housing Council, founded in 1945. There are also two photos of her father in his Episcopal vestments, early photos of her parents, one of her mother’s sister, as well as photos of her father’s parents and grandparents. There are also several photos of family friends, including one of Caroline Rathbone. There are a number of photos of St. Thomas, where Rev. Bright was born, as well as local clippings in the Bright scrapbook recounting visits to the island. There are photographs of Nellie Bright’s oil paintings depicting scenes of St. Thomas as well as a Canadian scene.

In addition, the collection contains a few personal notes to Bright from friends, a 45 rpm recording signed by the composer, Alton A. Adams, Sr., and a colored pencil sketch of Bright by E. Agafonoff, dated 1931. There are two black and white pencil sketches of two different males, both dated 1927. The scrapbook contains memorabilia such as steamship tickets and brochures announcing Rev. Bright’s travel lectures. Other ephemera include various church pamphlets and a copy of The Courtship of Miles Standish: Elizabeth by Henry W. Longfellow. Included also are six lithographs of political figures by Wm. H. Brown for E.B. & E.C. Kellogg Co and a front page color illustration of the sailing ship “Savannah” from The Literary Digest, dated December 21, 1929.

Lyon, Jr., Marvin P. “Blacks at Penn, Then and Now." Hutchins, Amey A. and The University of Pennsylvania Archives. The Campus History Series: University of Pennsylvania. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004. The Evening Bulletin, Obituaries, Temple University Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Bequest of the estate of Nellie R. Bright, 1977.

Purchase, 2013.

Accession numbers 77:55, 2013.099.

Original envelopes and frames for photographs were placed in separate folders; a preservation photocopies of the envelopes have been placed with these items where appropriate. One of these envelopes lists enclosures for fourteen photos; however, numbers 1, 7, 9, 12-14 were never a part of this collection.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Mary Kirk. Revised and updated by Randi Kamine.
Finding Aid Date
The processing of additions to the collection was made possible by a generous donation from Randall M. Miller.

Collection Inventory

Genealogical materials, 1925-1977.
Box 1 Folder 1
Certificate membership Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, 1972.
Box 1 Folder 2
School diplomas and civic awards, 1910-1961.
Box 1 Folder 3
Miscellaneous correspondence, 1940-1965.
Box 1 Folder 4
Miscellaneous, undated.
Box 1 Folder 5
Reverend and Mrs. Bright memorabilia, 1885-1937.
Box 1 Folder 6
Memorabia, Pamphlet: The Courship of Miles Standish, 1886.
Box 2 Folder 7
Memorabilia, cover: The Literary Digest, 1929.
Box 1 Folder 8
Pencil sketch I of a male, 1927.
Box 1 Folder 9
Pencil sketch II of a male, 1927.
Box 1 Folder 10
Origninal envelopes, Circa 1950-1970.
Box 1 Folder 11
Loose items removed from scapebook, 1891-circa1950.
Box 2 Folder 1
Three manmade handkerchiefs, circa 1890.
Box 2 Folder 2
Forty-five rpm record, circa 1956.
Box 2 Folder 3
Photographs, Bright, 1910-1935.
Box 2 Folder 4
Photographs, Bright's oil paintings, 1963-1964.
Box 2 Folder 5
Photographs family and close friends, circa 1890-circa 1940.
Box 2 Folder 6
Photograph family and close friends, circa 1955-1960.
Box 2 Folder 7
Photographs school personnel and civic awards, 1950-1952.
Box 2 Folder 8
Photographs miscellaneous, circa 1930-1940.
Box 2 Folder 9
Photograph Island Staint Kitts, "The Circus.", undated.
Box 2 Folder 10
Photographs cardboard frames, circa 1930-1960.
Box 2 Folder 11
Nellie Bright letters, 1928.
Box 2 Folder 12
Nellie Bright correspondence, 1929.
Box 2 Folder 13
Alton Adams correspondence, 1928, undated.
Box 2 Folder 14
Nellie Bright correspondence undated, undated.
Box 2 Folder 15
Scrapbook, 1889-1950.
Volume 1
Correspondence to Reverend Bright from Leonard, 1932.
Box 2 Folder 16
Correspondence to Ella from Roberta L. Sandidge, 1930.
Box 2 Folder 17
Correspondence from friends to Reverend Bright, 1927-1936.
Box 2 Folder 18
Postcards and photographs, 1931, undated.
Box 2 Folder 19
Photographs and color pencil drawing, 1891-1931.
Oversize 1
Lithographs, undated.
Oversize 2

Print, Suggest