As I stand in the mausoleum, reading the names of my ancestors, a bit of nostalgia flushes over me. A feeling of when I realized that I am a part of an incredible history. Each name etched upon the white marble has a story, but of them all, Richard Harvey Wright’s story screams the loudest.
The day was in late March of 2020, when everything was closing. All the libraries, universities, and schools were all shut down. And with them, the books and documents I desperately needed to tell his story. So the internet had to do. At first, I was able to uncover nuggets of treasures in old newspaper articles and a subscription to Ancestry.com. But this wasn’t enough. I had to have more.
Finally, when books could be held on hold, and my temperature taken to retrieve them, I was able to check out books from the public library. Books like Jean Anderson’s Durham County, A History of Durham County, North Carolina and Robert Durden’s book The Dukes of Durham.
My cousin, David Smith, furnished me with lots of old newspaper articles about Richard Harvey Wright and my brother Bill was willing to lend me his copy of Jean Anderson’s book. And for months, with everything still closed, I used all these resources to create the structure for my story.
All this time, I was discussing the project with my brother Rob, the family historian. Conversations ricocheted back and forth about writing the book and how to best capture the essence of this man who was so important to not just our family, but to our city.
And then, David introduced me to Anne Wright, a distant relative that I only knew from afar. In the late 70’s, she had audited a class at Duke and began researching Richard Harvey Wright. She had spent months going through the archives housed at Rubenstein Library, archives that I desired to read for myself, but were locked away to the public because of Covid.
So after Anne copied all of her notes and graciously gave me a copy, I knew I had a strong foundation, but I wanted more! And then Mary Pearson, a second cousin who I had never met, started emailing me her findings on Ancestry. Mary helped me fill in gaps about the family tree and how we were all connected by this man.
Finally in August of 2021, with the Rubenstein Library open to the public, and a strong desire to sift through the documents, I broke my ankle tripping out of a tent, which required surgery and physical therapy. I wasn’t going anywhere and I was housebound for the next five months. So instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I took what I had and begun to spin my story.
April 28, 2022 was the day I had been waiting for. The day I was able to enter the library, take a seat at one of the tables, and touch with my own hands the letters, ledgers, and documents that Richard Harvey Wright had stored away for just a time as this. Letters written by family members, business partners such as Washington, Benjamin, and James Buchanan Duke, and personal letters received from men like William T. Blackwell, E.J. Parrish, and Julian Shakespeare Carr.
With tears welling up in my eyes and my hands hardly able to hold on to each letter, I began to soak in every word that had been composed as early as the 1870’s. Letters that spoke of business pursuits that had to succeed and family matters that tore at my heart.
Letters that had been painstakingly placed in folders, dated by month and year, and placed in over four hundred boxes by the staff of Rubenstein Library. I realized after six hours and finishing only one box that this task was going to be daunting. But instead of focusing on the impossible nature of going through all the boxes, I prioritized by date, and have continued to spend hours each week immersed into the life of this man, who was known and respected by men from all over the world.