College of Communications and Fine Arts Art Museum of the University of Memphis
Francis Wright

Frances Wright came to Memphis—population 308 with an occasional bear—in 1825 with a cause, and she meant to stay. She had come to establish one of the most daring social experiments of the nineteenth century—to cure America of the evil of slavery. Memphis was hardly the place one would expect to find a wealthy Scottish spinster who had been raised in luxury and had visited Lafayette in France and Jefferson at Monticello.

Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1795, and orphaned three years later, Wright, at twenty-one, first visited the States. Her excitement and praise for everything in the new republic was blighted by her first encounter with slavery in Washington, D.C. Returning home she wrote Views of Society and Manners in America and began planning her social experiment in the new world. In 1825, she bought a tract of land on the Wolf River and about fifteen miles from the trading post called Memphis, which she named Nashoba (Chickasaw for "wolf"). She bought ten slaves in Nashville and advertised her project publicly, asking people to donate slaves to be educated and freed, and saying that she welcomed all laborers, black or white. The official groundbreaking at Nashoba was held on March 3, 1826, but the actuality of communal living was distant from the dream. Neighboring planters, already suspicious at the departure of some of her white companions during an absence extended by her illness, along with potential sympathizers elsewhere, lost interest or were shocked at rumors of free love and miscegenation, generated mainly by the published journal of a Nashoba board trustee. By 1827, she had to admit that the experiment had failed, done in by internal bickering and external criticism.

In Haiti in 1829, Wright freed the remaining slaves, and she spent the next twenty years fighting for radical causes in Europe and America, arguing ever for sexual and racial equality. In 1850, she returned to Memphis to file in the Shelby County Court for a divorce from the man she had married in 1831. She died in Cincinnati in 1852.

Dr. Joan Weatherly

Image courtesy of University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections.

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Last Updated: 2/28/13