Burlington Free Press – October 26, 1997
Flames of racism light compassion
By Susan Allen
Twelve thousand square feet of Vermont slate. Each piece split by hand with a hammer and coal chisel. Cool stone that helped quell the firs of racism in South Carolina town.
The story started on July 4, 1996, when Rick Wright’s young daughter suggested her father replace the roof of a black church in Orangeburg, S.C., destroyed by arsonists.
Wright, son of former House Speaker Ralph Wright, embraced the idea. The cost would be enormous, but the gesture struck a nerve with the 38-year-old Bennington roofer.
“These poor people have struggled all their lives,” he said of the congregation, glancing last week through a stack of photos of the project. “They don’t understand the hatred involved in the church burning anymore that your or I do.”
He called church elders that July week to volunteer the work. They never questioned his motives, sending up blueprints. The project was huge- with $100,000 price tag.
As word of Wright’s plan spread, so did local goodwill – with slate, trucking and even cash donated.
He and his daughter, Elizabeth, 18, arrived in South Carolina on May 28 of the following spring, joining friend Daniel Watley of Louisiana.
For 33 days, the three worked in 100-degree heat to put Vermont slat on the rebuild church. Flossie Mack, a parishioner and the first black teacher in South Carolina’s public schools, stopped by to watch the work.
“This was their school before they could go to the white schools,” Wright said. “Generations of Macks went to this school.
“They’re not whiners,” he said of the congregation. “They went from being done by 30 points to being up by two.”
Wright’s grandfather, wounded during World War II, was his inspiration. “Basically, the people who did this were Nazis, “ Wright said.
And of course his father, who devoted his legislative career to helping Vermont’s downtrodden, played a role.“Ralph cared about everybody else,” Rick Wright said. “I’ve been kind of selfish. It comes right back down to public service.”
Wright will return to Orangeburg soon to put the finishing touches on the project. The first church service is set for January.
He will leave behind a congregation in the South grateful for a little help from strangers in the North. He believes the gesture speaks to a nation horrified by the string of church burnings.
“When this happens, we’re all tin trouble,” Wright said. He wants the roof to serve as reminder of the racial hatred that burned that summer and the forces that responded.
“I hope they can keep telling the story for generations…why this got done’” he said. “We don’t want them to forget it.”
He glanced down at a photo and smiled.
“That roof just shines out.”