Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers

Collection 2057

(1.0 Linear feet ; 2 boxes, 1 volume, 2 flat files)

Summary Information

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Bright, Nellie Rathbone, 1898-1977
Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers
1.0 Linear feet ; 2 boxes, 1 volume, 2 flat files
Finding aid prepared by Mary Kirk. Revised and updated by Randi Kamine.
The processing of additions to the collection was made possible by a generous donation from Randall M. Miller.
Mixed materials (00006261) [Box]
Mixed materials (00006262) [Volume]
Mixed materials (00008864) [Box]
Mixed materials [Oversize]
Nellie Rathbone Bright, born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1898, was the only child of the Rev. Richard Bright and his wife, Nellie (Jones) Bright. Despite segregation barriers, the African American Bright family attained educational levels surpassing those of the general population of their generation. Rev. Bright, assigned to the Episcopal diocese in Savannah, Georgia, in 1891, was appointed two decades later to a Philadelphia parish and moved his family to that city. A student of Philadelphia public schools, Nellie Rathbone Bright qualified as a grade school teacher with a special certificate for sewing in 1916. She then entered the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1923 with a B.A. in English. Single all her life, Bright spent her entire career as a teacher and then principal in the Philadelphia school system. Her efforts as an educator, spanning more than thirty years, focused not only on the schools but also on the housing and neighborhoods in which her students lived. In addition to her leadership abilities, Bright also possessed literary talents which she employed to support various causes throughout her career, ranging from contributing to black literary reviews to writing history for children. The Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers include 146 pages of letters, biographical notes, and a number of photographs. The collection also includes a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and church programs relating to Nellie Bright’s father, the Rev. Richard Bright, and his work as an Episcopal priest in Savannah, Georgia, and Philadelphia. These materials provide a mosaic-like portrait of Bright’s life as the daughter of a religious leader committed to educating young children. These articles offer glimpses of the richness and wealth of Nellie Rathbone Bright’s contribution to education in Philadelphia.

Preferred citation

[Indicate cited item here], Nellie Rathbone Bright Family Papers (Collection 2057), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Background note

Nellie Rathbone Bright spent her early years in Savannah, Georgia, where she was born on March 28, 1898, the only child of the Rev. Richard Bright and Nellie Jones Bright. She was named for her mother and grandmother as well as for her godmother, Caroline Rathbone, a social activist who remained a friend of the Bright family throughout her life. Rev. Bright, the first black Episcopal priest in the Savannah Episcopal diocese, was born in St. Thomas, then part of the Dutch West Indies, in 1866. He was educated at St. Augustine Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Episcopal Theological seminary in New York, where he graduated in 1891. Nellie Jones, from Louisville, Kentucky, was educated in Europe as a teacher after she was denied entrance to schools in the United States. Together, the Rev. Bright and his wife Nellie established the first private kindergarten and primary school for blacks in Georgia in 1892. After serving the Savannah diocese for almost twenty years, the Rev. Bright moved his family from Savannah to accept an appointment in Philadelphia.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Nellie Rathbone Bright earned her eighth grade graduation diploma in 1910 from Stanton Public School. She then obtained a diploma as a grade school teacher, with a special certificate in sewing, from William Penn High, Normal Teacher Training School, in 1916. Bright continued her education in 1919 when she entered the University of Pennsylvania, where she became a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1923. Bright also pursued research at the Sorbonne and Oxford, as well as art studies at the University of Vermont and the Berkshire School of Art in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts.

While working as a young teacher in the Philadelphia schools, Bright also participated in the black intellectual renaissance that was flourishing in many large cities at that time. She co-founded and contributed to the literary magazine Black Opals established in the late 1920s to encourage black writers. During this period she also furnished articles to other literary magazines intended to encourage black authors. Bright also wrote on black history and black education in early Philadelphia.

After more than a decade of teaching in the Philadelphia public schools, Bright accepted an appointment as a principal in 1935, an office she held at various schools in Philadelphia until 1952. From 1952 until 1959, at the direction of the Board of Education, she taught in-service courses on black history for other teachers. The classes were held at The Fellowship House, an advocacy group promoting racial tolerance and civil rights.

During her years as teacher and principal, Bright served on over fifteen civic boards or organizations directed toward improving schools and neighborhoods by encouraging open housing, improvements in city health services, and facilitating cooperation among diverse members of society. In 1970, at the age of seventy-two, Bright co-authored a children’s book of social history, American -Red, White, Black, Yellow. During her lifetime she received numerous awards for her educational and civic leadership efforts, most notably a certificate from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, dated June 10, 1972.

Bright was fluent in French and Spanish and traveled extensively in the Caribbean and Europe, making her first trip at the age of four when accompanying her parents to her father’s birth place, St. Thomas. A painter as well as a writer, Bright depicted travel scenes in oil paintings. Bright remained single all her life, and died February 7, 1977.

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Scope and content note

The Nellie Rathbone Bright family papers consist of three principal components supplemented by a smaller, but important, assemblage of photographs as well as notes on family history. One of the main components offers a biographical listing of dates of major milestones in Bright’s life, such as graduations and civic awards, prepared by her in 1973 for entry into a publication, A Biographical Dictionary of Living Black American Writers, published by R.R. Bowker. Another comprises a scrapbook documenting the work of her father, the Rev. Richard Bright, first as an Episcopal priest in Savannah, Georgia, and later, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The third major component contains 146 pages of letters, the majority of which were written by Nellie to her father. There are also photographs of the Brights, their ancestors, and close family friends; six lithographic prints; and miscellaneous ephemera. Index cards containing a short genealogical survey of the Bright family, and which also cite instances of racial violence directed against her mother’s family, make up a smaller, but notable component of the collection. Nellie Bright’s biographical listing, her father’s scrapbook, and family correspondence offer insight into the Bright family experience. Her father’s scrapbook, with newspaper articles referencing his work, articles addressing issues important to blacks at that time, church programs detailing a congregation’s activities, or simply news of the family’s travels, all serve as a landscape against which to view Nellie Bright’s own later list of accomplishments.

The scrapbook articles require careful reading, for while they follow a fairly consistent chronology, they often lack dates and names of publication. In addition, information pertaining to the Rev. Bright’s early years as a student will appear in later articles offering a brief review of his career.

For example, background on the Bright family’s friendship with Caroline Rathbone, a white woman, who later became his daughter’s godmother, appears in an article detailing Rathbone’s funeral, held in Evansville, Indiana. A black man’s officiating at a white woman’s funeral produced the column headline, “Colored Man to Take Part in Funeral at St. Paul’s Church” announced in The Evansville Courier, December 23, 1901. The article mentions that Rev. Bright was once Rathbone’s Sunday School student in New York. The article has a condescending tone, referring to Rathbone as Rev. Bright’s “benefactor,” and as the woman who “taught him the real meaning of life.” The scrapbook offers few references to Nellie’s mother. There is a brief (undated) wedding announcement early in the book, and later a death notice dated December 17, 1914, which appears on the same page as several articles concerning the death of Mrs. Bright’s father, Q.B. Jones, in 1894.

Even though they lack detailed biographical data, the articles provide a representative portrait of the Rev. Bright in his capacity as Episcopal priest. Many articles reference his reputation as an excellent speaker and often provide a summary of his chosen sermon topics. One clipping reported a sermon preached July 4, 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American War. In this sermon, Rev. Bright contrasted what he termed “true” and “false” patriotism. He criticized “certain members of Congress who have shown their lukewarm patriotism by crying out for war, but when war was declared, they were not to be seen among those who went to the front.” The Rev. Bright encouraged his congregants to lend their support to the war if necessary: “There was no time when the colored people had shirked their duty to their country.”

Other articles indicate Rev. Bright was also a respected author of religious pamphlets, and the Episcopal newspaper, Church Advocate, in an edition dated August 12, 1893, published a column in which he argues for the church’s continuing investment in education. Additionally, the scrapbook contains a certificate from the Library of Congress dated March 2, 1900, registering “St. Stephen’s Catechism” prepared by Rev. Richard Bright in 1892.

Letters written to Nellie’s father while she studied sketching and painting at the University of Vermont in the summer of 1928 shed light on her accomplishments as an artist; Nellie writes of being praised for her work by her instructors.

In the summer of 1929, Nellie studied at the Berkshire Summer School of Art in Monterey, Massachusetts. In both Vermont and Massachusetts, it is notable how Nellie’s experience of being, presumably, one of very few Black students was essentially a positive one. She speaks highly of her classmates and the kindnesses shown her. Also apparent in the letters is her strong affection for her father, whom she invariably addresses as “My dear sweet Papie.”

Although Bright’s own papers offer few clippings documenting her work, those available complement the biographical listing of her life as an educator. An article announcing her first appointment as principal in 1935 offers insight into other possibilities open to her. The article (no date or name of publication) contains a subheading, “Appointment To Hill School Comes As A Surprise,” and notes that Bright had expressed a desire “to withdraw from the field and retire to a foreign country.” Bright, possessing talents which included foreign language and writing skills, demonstrated capabilities reaching beyond education. However, Bright accepted this appointment as principal and served as principal of two other schools until retiring in 1952.

After 1952, Bright offered courses on black history at the Fellowship House in Philadelphia. In 1970, at the age of 72, she and fellow Penn alum Arthur Huff Fauset co-authored American--Red, White, Black, Yellow, a book for children and young adults on the history of minorities in the United States. A flyer advertising this book is included in her papers.

The collection includes a list of awards recognizing her efforts to improve the learning and living environment of her students. An article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1950, refers to her recent Fellowship Commission award and quotes Bright: “I believe all people can work together, especially to help themselves…[W]hile striving for a common goal, racial and religious differences are forgotten.” Another clipping notes that Bright will be recognized “in the forthcoming housing feature in the June issue of Color magazine.” Other awards recognizing her leadership abilities include her 1957 appointment to the Mayor’s Scholarship Committee, the 1970 National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service award (mentioned in her notes) and a 1972 certificate inducting her as a member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

Photographs in the collection include one of Bright upon her graduation from Stanton School and two undated photographs taken as an adult. Other photos of Bright show her as a principal with students on the occasion of their earning a television set for the school (1952), and with Bill Coale, whom she notes as a friend and co-chair of the Germantown & Chestnut Hill Housing Council, founded in 1945. There are also two photos of her father in his Episcopal vestments, early photos of her parents, one of her mother’s sister, as well as photos of her father’s parents and grandparents. There are also several photos of family friends, including one of Caroline Rathbone. There are a number of photos of St. Thomas, where Rev. Bright was born, as well as local clippings in the Bright scrapbook recounting visits to the island. There are photographs of Nellie Bright’s oil paintings depicting scenes of St. Thomas as well as a Canadian scene.

In addition, the collection contains a few personal notes to Bright from friends, a 45 rpm recording signed by the composer, Alton A. Adams, Sr., and a colored pencil sketch of Bright by E. Agafonoff, dated 1931. There are two black and white pencil sketches of two different males, both dated 1927. The scrapbook contains memorabilia such as steamship tickets and brochures announcing Rev. Bright’s travel lectures. Other ephemera include various church pamphlets and a copy of The Courtship of Miles Standish: Elizabeth by Henry W. Longfellow. Included also are six lithographs of political figures by Wm. H. Brown for E.B. & E.C. Kellogg Co and a front page color illustration of the sailing ship “Savannah” from The Literary Digest, dated December 21, 1929.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

 The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 2005

1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19107

Revision Description

 Purchased additions processed into collection. June 2014


Bequest of the estate of Nellie R. Bright, 1977.

Purchase, 2013.

Accession numbers 77:55, 2013.099.

Processing note

Original envelopes and frames for photographs were placed in separate folders; a preservation photocopies of the envelopes have been placed with these items where appropriate. One of these envelopes lists enclosures for fourteen photos; however, numbers 1, 7, 9, 12-14 were never a part of this collection.

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Controlled Access Headings


  • Teachers, Black--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--20th century.
  • Women school principals--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--20th century.

Personal Name(s)

  • Adams, Alton A., 1889-1987.
  • Agafonoff, Eugene., 1879-
  • Bright, Richard., b. 1866
  • Rathbone, Caroline S.


  • African-American--Social Life and Customs.
  • American American women artists.
  • Education--Public Schools--Philadelphia.
  • Episcopal Church--Education--19th century--20th century.
  • Episcopal Church--Georgia--Savannah--19th century.
  • Episcopal Church--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--20th century.
  • Episcopal Church.
  • Women in education–-Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--20th century.

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Lyon, Jr., Marvin P. “Blacks at Penn, Then and Now."

Hutchins, Amey A. and The University of Pennsylvania Archives. The Campus History Series: University of Pennsylvania. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.

The Evening Bulletin, Obituaries, Temple University Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Collection Inventory

Box Folder

Genealogical materials 1925-1977 

1 1

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Certificate membership Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery 1972 

1 2

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School diplomas and civic awards 1910-1961 

1 3

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Miscellaneous correspondence 1940-1965 

1 4

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Miscellaneous undated 

1 5

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Reverend and Mrs. Bright memorabilia 1885-1937 

1 6

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Memorabia, Pamphlet: The Courship of Miles Standish 1886 

2 7

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Memorabilia, cover: The Literary Digest 1929 

1 8

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Pencil sketch I of a male 1927 

1 9

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Pencil sketch II of a male 1927 

1 10

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Origninal envelopes Circa 1950-1970 

1 11

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Loose items removed from scapebook 1891-circa1950 

2 1

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Three manmade handkerchiefs circa 1890 

2 2

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Forty-five rpm record circa 1956 

2 3

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Photographs, Bright 1910-1935 

2 4

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Photographs, Bright's oil paintings 1963-1964 

2 5

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Photographs family and close friends circa 1890-circa 1940 

2 6

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Photograph family and close friends circa 1955-1960 

2 7

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Photographs school personnel and civic awards 1950-1952 

2 8

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Photographs miscellaneous circa 1930-1940 

2 9

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Photograph Island Staint Kitts, "The Circus." undated 

2 10

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Photographs cardboard frames circa 1930-1960 

2 11

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Nellie Bright letters 1928 

2 12

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Nellie Bright correspondence 1929 

2 13

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Alton Adams correspondence 1928, undated 

2 14

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Nellie Bright correspondence undated undated 

2 15

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Scrapbook 1889-1950 


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Box Folder

Correspondence to Reverend Bright from Leonard 1932 

2 16

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Correspondence to Ella from Roberta L. Sandidge 1930 

2 17

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Correspondence from friends to Reverend Bright 1927-1936 

2 18

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Postcards and photographs 1931, undated 

2 19

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Photographs and color pencil drawing 1891-1931 


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Lithographs undated 


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