Alonzo Wright - Cleveland's First Black Millionaire
From humble beginnings as a black southern migrant, shoe-shiner, and messenger, Alonzo Wright became Cleveland’s first African American millionaire.
Alonzo Gordon Wright was born in a one-room house in Fayetteville, Tennessee, on April 30, 1898, the son of Alonzo and Joyce Kelso Wright. His father was a telephone lineman who was killed on the job when Alonzo was six years old.
He worked as a shoeshine boy and messenger to help his mother support the family. Then, in the early 1910s, his mother moved to Cleveland and found work in the Eagle Laundry, and a short time later sent for her sons.
Alonzo attended night school to earn his high school diploma while also holding down various jobs as a teamster, foundry hand, mail truck driver, and most notably, a garage attendant at the Auditorium Hotel. Impressed by Wright’s work, Wallace T. Holliday, Sohio’s new president, learned that Wright aspired to a career in business. Holliday offered Wright a desk job, but Wright requested to operate a service station instead. With Holliday’s help, Wright became the first African American to lease a Sohio gas station.
Wright’s first station was located at East 93rd and Cedar, the first Standard Oil station in a predominantly African American Cleveland neighborhood. Wright attracted customers by offering new services. For example, Wright was credited as the first station operator to regularly clean windshields and offer free tire and radiator checks. His motto was, “A Business Built With a Rag.”
By 1937 he operated six Sohio stations. By the time he ceased operations in the early 1940s, he had run eleven gas stations. Wright was very passionate about using his success to help the African American community. He created opportunities and hired more black youths by 1940 than any other businessman in America. The National Negro Business League awarded him the C. C. Spaulding Business Achievement Award at an annual meeting. He was also an essential founder of the Cleveland Development Fund, which endeavored to eliminate African American slums.
Wright left the service station business as gas rationing for World War II slowed sales. Instead, he turned to the real estate market, opening his real estate investment firm, Wright’s Enterprises, in 1943. In 1947, he bought the Carnegie Hotel at 6803 Carnegie Avenue, which he planned to make “one of the nicest Negro hotels in the country.” He sold the hotel in 1960. Wright also bought the Ritzwood Hotel at Woodland and East 51st Street, which was destroyed by fire in 1960.
In 1960, Wright transformed an apartment house at 2415 East 55th Street into the Dunbar Nursing Home. In the 1960s, Wright concentrated on industrial and residential construction. The August 1961 issue of “Ebony” magazine touted the millionaire as Cleveland’s “richest, most socially prominent Negro.”
Alonzo was a member of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, the City Club, and Forest City Hospital’s trustee.
But even as a successful businessman, he felt the stings of racial prejudice. When he moved into an all-white section of Cleveland Heights in the 1930s, his home at 2985 Hampshire Road was bombed. In 1947, he moved to a 200-acre estate in Chesterland. In 1961, Wright charged the Lakeside Yacht Club with discrimination after the club denied him dock space.
Alonzo and Henrietta wanted a place in the city and bought a unit in Bratenahl Place. When the news broke, a dozen people backed out of their deals. After Marris Stone, Jeannette Dempsey, Alva Bonda, Mary Bellamy, and Helen Hossler completed purchases, the twelve wanted back in, and Bratenahl Place developer John Dempsey wouldn’t take any of them.
When the Wrights came to sign, Alonzo heard about the cancelations and told John Dempsey that he would withdraw because he was upset about all this stuff. He said that Henrietta wouldn’t use the swimming pool for a while. Dempsey said no to the cancelation.
Alonzo married Henrietta Cheeks in 1929. She was born on April 1, 1903, and died on February 3, 1963. They had a son, A. Gordon Jr. Alonzo married Helen Keith on August 20, 1964. Wright passed away at his Bratenahl home on August 17, 1976, and is buried in Lake View Cemetery.