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Nellie Rathbone Bright

Nellie Rathbone Bright (March 28, 1898 - February 7, 1977) was an African-American educator and author.

Early life

Nellie Rathbone Bright was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 28, 1898, the only child of Reverend Richard Bright and his wife, Nellie (Jones) Bright. Bright was named after mother and grandmother; her middle name originated from her godmother Caroline Rathbone, a family friend and social activist.

Bright's father was born on Saint Thomas in what was then the Dutch West Indies. He received his education at St. Augustine Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated from Episcopal Theological seminary in New York in 1891. Upon graduation, Rev. Bright was assigned to the Espiscopal diocese in Savannah, the first black Episcopal priest to be appointed to the position.

Bright's mother, Nellie, was from Louisville, Kentucky. She had received her education to become a teacher in Europe because she was denied entrance on racial grounds to schools in the United States.[1][2] Shortly after their arrival in Savannah, in 1892, the Brights established the first private kindergarten and primary school for blacks in Georgia. In the early 1910s, the Brights moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Rev. Bright had accepted an appointment.

Education and Career

Bright attended Philadelphia public schools: first Stanton Public School, and then William Penn High, where she obtained a diploma as a grade school teacher with a special certificate in sewing. In 1919, Bright entered the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a Bachelor's degree in English in 1923.

Members at 1921 national convention, hosted by Gamma Chapter (l to r): front, Virginia Margaret Alexander, Julia Mae Polk, Sadie Tanner Mossell; row 2, Anna R. Johnson, Nellie Rathbone Bright, Pauline Alice Young
While at the University of Pennsylvania, Bright was a charter member of the Gamma chapter of the university's first black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. Other members of her chapter included Virginia M. Alexander, who later became a physician and founded the Aspiranto Health Home; Anna Johnson, a social worker, educator, civic activist, and wife of the famed chemist Percy Lavon Julian; and Sadie Tanner Mosell, the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She also chartered the Xi Sigma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta alongside ten other women. Bright also studied at the Sorbonne and Oxford, as well as studying art at the Berkshire School of Art in Massachusetts.

After her graduation, Bright worked as a teacher in Philadelphia public schools. During this time, she co-edited a Harlem Renaissance literary magazine called Black Opals with Arthur Fauset.[3]

In 1935, she was appointed principal of the segregated Joseph E. Hill School in Philadelphia. According to her one of her students, author and professor Allen Ballard, she was a strict principal who instilled a love and pride of African American history and culture in her students:

We were all Nellie Bright's children and she expected great things from us. And so she created a wonderful school. A landscape painter and writer...Miss Bright saw to it that the Hill School was immaculate and vibrantly decorated with pictures and posters. She and her staff made the achievements of blacks a cause for year-round celebration. Blackboards and walls were crowded with posters of Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Dumas, and the great black Russian writer Pushkin.[4]

Bright served as a principal of three different schools before she retired in 1952. After her retirement, she continued to educate by teaching courses on black history at the Fellowship House in Philadelphia (now Fellowship Farm in Pottstown, PA), an interracial organization dedicated to learning about and understanding cultural and racial differences.

In 1972, Bright co-authored American - Red, White, Black, Yellow with Arthur Fauset. This history book for children and young adults focused on the history of minorities in the United States.

Bright died on February 7, 1977. She is buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA.[5]

Personal Life

In addition to her educational and writing pursuits, Bright was a landscape painter in oils. She spoke French and Spanish fluently.

Bright traveled extensively in her lifetime, spending time in both the Caribbean and Europe.


  1. ^ [Nellie Rathbone Bright Family Papers (Collection 2057), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.]
  2. ^ [Ballard, Allen B. Breaching Jericho's Walls: A Twentieth-century African American Life. Albany: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York, 2011. Print.]
  3. ^ Aberjhani, and Sandra L. West. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Print.
  4. ^ [Ballard, Allen B. Breaching Jericho's Walls: A Twentieth-century African American Life. Albany: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York, 2011. Print.]
  5. ^ "Dr Nellie Rathbone Bright (1898 - 1977) - Find A Grave Memorial". 2012-05-27. Retrieved 2014-06-04.