Ralph G. Voorhees was born in 1838 into a well-established New Jersey family. He grew into a hardworking and successful young man who managed the family farm. When an unknown medical condition caused him to lose his eyesight his life was irrevocably altered. After a period of struggle, he went on to lead a productive life. At the age of 49, Ralph wed his long-time love Elizabeth Rodman in 1887 and moved into a modest home in Clinton, New Jersey. They inherited considerable wealth with the death of their fathers and an uncle and decided to make numerous philanthropic donations to religious and educational institutions. The great variety of financial support extended many years, totaling in millions of dollars. Therefore, it is impossible to measure the far reaching and positive impact that Ralph and Elizabeth had on the lives of others.
To one young woman, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright of Georgia, Ralph and Elizabeth Voorhees were “heaven sent.” Miss Wright’s ambition and sole purpose was to provide higher education for black children. Her parents were born into slavery and as a child of Reconstruction she faced years of struggle, prejudice, and opposition for her work. Despite failing health and sometimes starvation, she opened the Denmark Industrial School for African Americans in North Carolina.
In 1901, arrangements were made for her to meet with Ralph Voorhees in Clinton because she needed more support. Ralph was so intrigued by her project that he invited her to stay overnight and by the next morning he had become her partner and primary financial source. The following year, the school was renamed Voorhees Industrial School in honor of its benefactors. Ralph declared that he, “found larger satisfaction in this work with Miss Wright, than any other in which he had made liberal contributions.” After Ralph’s death Mrs. Voorhees continued to support the school.
Elizabeth Wright married Martin A. Menafee in 1906, but within a month she became terminally ill with intestinal problems that had plagued her since childhood. She died on December 14, 1906. Ralph’s sentiment to Martin was her spirit would continue in the work of the school and that the school would go on forever. Voorhees Industrial School opened a junior college in 1929, which became the first junior college for African Americans to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It later became Voorhees College, a private four-year college.
To read more about the lives of Ralph and Elizabeth:
Voorhees, O. M. (1927). Ralph and Elizabeth Rodman Voorhees: A Tribute. United States: Tribute Press.
Coleman, J. F. B. (1922). Tuskegee to Voorhees: The Booker T. Washington Idea Projected. United States: R.L. Bryan Company.