In the 1960s and 1970s, Barbara Lee Wright fought systemic housing discrimination, known as “redlining,” in Washington, D.C.
Moving to the Twin Cities, she continued her good works over a long career, teaching early childhood education, helping her church with the resettlement of Ethiopian refugees and mentoring elementary schoolchildren.
“She had a saying on her refrigerator that said, ‘Praise your God at all times; if necessary, use words,’ ” said Steve Wright, her oldest son.
“To her it meant take actions that are praiseworthy, don’t just use words,” said Frank Wright, her husband of 63 years.
Barbara Wright died Aug. 15 at her home in Richfield of lung cancer. She was 83.
“She lived social justice,” said her husband, a former managing editor at the Star Tribune. “She believed you don’t just talk the talk, you walk the walk.”
Barbara Wright was born in Chicago in 1932, raised in La Grange, Ill., and met Frank Wright in a social studies class at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. They discovered they were both fans of the Chicago Cubs. They married and moved to Minneapolis in 1953 so he could attend the University of Minnesota. She got a clerical job at the U.
Her husband was hired as a reporter at the Minneapolis Star in 1954 and transferred to the Tribune in 1956. In 1968 they moved to the Washington, D.C., area where he went to work for the paper’s D.C. bureau.
In Washington, Barbara Wright became the first director of Home Buyers, a Lutheran Social Service (LSS) agency to help black families become homeowners. She recruited black families to participate in the program and raised money — often from white liberal supporters — to cover down payments.
“She also had to deal with bankers who did not want to offer mortgages [to black families] and redlining insurance companies that did not want to provide coverage,” Frank Wright said. “She fought against them all the time, trying to bully them and persuade them to do what they should be doing.”
When LSS ran short of foster homes, she’d take care of babies at her house and was nicknamed the “Overflow Mom” around the LSS office.
The couple returned to the Twin Cities in 1977, and she taught early childhood family education in the Robbinsdale schools. Wright eventually developed a curriculum for it at the U.
In the 1980s she helped with the resettlement of Ethiopian refugees. “At least five Ethiopian young men lived for awhile at our house,” her husband said.
She later volunteered as a mentor with her friend, Mary Haws, for second- and third-graders at a Richfield school.
“She was always pleasant and excited about going,” Haws said. “The day we’d show up at the door of the classroom, they’d say, ‘Here comes the grandmas.’ ”
The Rev. Mary Albing of the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis said that when she became pastor, both Barbara and Frank Wright were ushers. As people arrived, Barbara would offer an unusual greeting: “How are you, chicken pie? How the hell are you?”
It was well received by parishioners.
“I have been a pastor for a long time and never heard people usher and swear as they came in the door,” Albing said. “They obviously adored Barbara.”
In addition to her husband, Frank, and son Steve of Edina, she is survived by four other children, Jeff of Eden Prarie; Tally of Minnetonka; Greg of Louisville, Colo.; and Sarah Peterson of Chanhassen. Services have been held.