(Photograph of Alonzo Wright’s first SOHIO station, 1935.)
Born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, Alonzo Wright (30 Apr. 1898-17 Aug. 1976) began his career as a shoe shiner and messenger. From those humble beginnings he went on to become Cleveland’s first African American millionaire. He moved to Cleveland in the 1910s with a reported six cents in his pocket. Alonzo went to 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. He met SOHIO executive, Wallace T. Holliday during his eight years working as an attendant. Holliday offered Wright a desk job at Standard Oil, but Wright requested to operate a service station instead. With Holliday’s help, Wright became the first African American to lease a SOHIO station.
Wright’s first station was located at E. 93rd and Cedar in a predominantly African American Cleveland neighborhood. He improved his business by offering extra services, such as windshield cleanings and tire and radiator checks. By 1937 he operated six SOHIO stations. By the time he ceased operations in the early 1940s, he ran 11 gas stations.
From Service Station to Serving His Community
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 business man in America. He was also an essential founder of the Cleveland Development Fund which endeavored to eliminate African American slums.
Unfortunately, Wright was met with racial adversity despite of his business success and standing. When he moved into an all-white section of Cleveland Heights in the 1930s, his home was bombed. He later moved to a 200-acre farm in Chesterland, Ohio in 1947.
Wright left the service station business as gas rationing for World War II slowed sales. He turned to the real estate market instead, opening his own real estate investment firm, Wright’s Enterprises, in 1943. Among his most impressive purchases were Carnegie Hotel and the Ritzwood Hotel. He also established Dunbar Nursing Home. By the 1960s his focus was mainly centered on industrial and residential construction. Wright passed away at his home in Bratenahl at the age of 78 and was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.
The legacy of John D. Rockefeller’s first endeavor into oil refining (1862) as the Rockefeller & Andrews Oil Company in 1862 progressed to Standard Oil in 1870, Standard Oil of Ohio in 1890 and to SOHIO in 1911. Alonzo Wright was able to prosper as a young SOHIO entrepreneur in the 1930s into the 1940s. Later in 1978, SOHIO would merge into British Petroleum., and became known as BP in 1991. Today, the Standard Oil legacy lives on in the familiar green BP sunburst logo and slogan: Beyond Petroleum (2001).