Barrister's Award has traditionally been awarded at BLSA's annual banquet to an outstanding member of the South Carolina legal community. In 2004, the award was renamed the Jonathan Jasper Wright Award.
Jonathan Jasper Wright was born on February 11, 1840 in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He attended Lancasterian University in Ithaca, New York, and he began teaching after completing his studies. In addition to teaching, he studied the law in the law firm of Bently, Fith and Bently of Montrose, Pennsylvania, and the chambers of Judge O. Collins of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. However, his request to stand the Pennsylvania bar was denied, presumably because of his race.
Wright first came to South Carolina to open schools for recently freed slaves in Beaufort County. He also gave lectures on legal and political matters and provided legal advice. These activities drew criticism from some in Beaufort. Wright answered by saying, "Had I been content to settle down and been what the masses of white persons desired of me (a bootblack, a barber, or a hotel waiter), I would have been heard of less."
After Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, Wright again petitioned the authorities in Pennsylvania to take the bar. His request was granted. On August 13, 1866, he was admitted to the bar, and became the first African-American licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania. He subsequently returned to Beaufort County, South Carolina as legal advisor to General Oliver O. Howard. He was the first African-American to practice law in South Carolina.
In July 1868, Wright was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. He served as a convention vice president, and was assigned to the judiciary committee. While servings on the judiciary committee, he played a major role in shaping the judiciary section of the South Carolina Constitution, which is still in place. In the first election in which freedmen could vote, Wright was elected as senator from Beaufort County. Shortly after his election to the legislature, he was sworn in as a member of the South Carolina bar on September 23, 1868.
On February 1, 1870, Wright was elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court as an associate justice. He was the first African-American elected to any appeals court in the nation. Wright served on the Supreme Court for seven years, writing 87 opinions, and shaping South Carolina common law. In 1871, he resigned from the South Carolina Supreme Court and relocated to Charleston. While in Charleston, he set up a law practice, taught classes from his office, established Claflin College's law department, and served as college trustee.
Justice Wright died on February 19, 1885. His life was a gift to all of us because he helped shape a better society for all citizens of South Carolina.