Local Obituaries

Sonny Wright, who made Peoples the first black-owned bank in Miami-Dade, dies at 81

Sonny Wright, a real estate entrepreneur, led an investor group that bought Peoples National Bank of Commerce in 1983 in Liberty City.
Sonny Wright, a real estate entrepreneur, led an investor group that bought Peoples National Bank of Commerce in 1983 in Liberty City.

Sonny Wright’s wife of 50 years, Veronise Strong-Wright, thinks the secret to her late husband’s business success could be traced, in part, to his father, Lindzey Wright, a construction worker in Swainsboro, Georgia.

“I think there might be some genes that steered him to where he ended up in real estate,” Strong-Wright surmised.

A clear vision helped, too. “He was a visionary,” she said. “He could envision things to happen and it took place. My son-in-law asked him, ‘Why do you think God was so good to you and allowed you to be successful in whatever you pursued?’

“He said, ‘Listen to me carefully. Most people talk about it. People talk about things. I did it.’ He was a very aggressive person and had the vision, but he made sure he circulated in the right circles that could help him,” Strong-Wright said.

Sonny Wright, who died Dec. 12 at 81 of cancer, made local history when, in 1983, he bought 81 percent of the existing Peoples National Bank of Commerce in Liberty City. This action, undertaken with the help of investors like Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie and the Rev. Samuel Atchison, made Peoples the first black-owned bank in Miami-Dade.

Wright also owned the historic Carver Hotel at Northwest Ninth Street and Northwest Third Avenue in Overtown; the newspaper South Florida News Week; Universal Real Estate in Liberty City, which he established; and served on the boards of Florida International University, Miami Board of Realtors, Urban League of Greater Miami, Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and chaired the Florida Real Estate Commission.

Between the bank and real estate firm, Wright had the ear of local politicians and bold-face names including President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, religious leader Louis Farrakhan, boxing promoter Don King and “Miami Vice” costar Philip Michael Thomas.

Sonny was an astute businessman. He was skilled in his craft and practiced real estate almost like it was a religion.

Historian Dorothy Jenkins Fields on Sonny Wright.

A humiliating experience at a Miami Royal Castle soon after Wright arrived from New York in 1957 inspired him to start his first business — Sonny’s Sportsman’s Luncheonette in Overtown.

In an interview for Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer’s book, “Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960 Through the 1980s,” Wright recounted how he was inspired to open the Miami eatery.

“When I first came here, I recall going into Royal Castle and I made the mistake of sitting down waiting for a hamburger that I was going to take out because I knew that you couldn't eat the hamburger there,” he said.

Wright was instructed by a staffer to stand and wait for his food — and then leave with the bagged burger.

“That was really an experience that I think a lot of black people have had at one time in their life. I think that the idea really is not so much the ability to eat at a hamburger place, but I think more importantly, to buy one,” Wright said.

Said daughter Denise Webster: “He said that was so compelling to him. Though he was embarrassed he couldn’t eat the hamburger, what struck him wasn’t [that] fact … but that he should be able to own the business that produces the hamburger. That way we could revitalize our own communities. That is where he got his whole premise on creating economic empowerment within the community in Overtown.”

Cobbling savings from a post office job he’d held in New York, work as a laborer, and tapping friendships he’d made with some local businessmen, Wright opened his own small restaurant. Friends like Cassius Clay (later boxing champ Muhammad Ali) and R&B singer Solomon Burke could be found helping out inside in the 1960s, his wife remembered.

“Solomon showed Sonny how to cook, he would take old dishes and he knew how to doctor them up,” Strong-Wright said.

“I worked my ass off, but I learned a lot,” Wright told Inc. magazine in 1986. “I met the meat man, the bread man, the jukebox man. They became my advisers. I was getting an education in business administration.”

Soon, Wright turned his attention to real estate, left the restaurant business, and started his own firm, Universal Real Estate. By the mid-1970s, he had more than $5 million in sales, Inc. reported.

“What I admired about him the most was he did not graduate from high school. He needed one more class to get a high school diploma and he refused to do it. He went on the road called life and the rest is history,” said his wife, a registered nurse who also worked alongside her husband in the real estate business for decades. The couple lived on LaGorce Island in Miami Beach, the first black family on the block, she said.

Webster recalled growing up with a father who tried to instill in his three children that same strong sense of self. He would use slogans, some borrowed from friends like Ali, some original, to get his message across.

“We had an unusual upbringing,” she said, laughing, as she recalled some of those sayings: “There’s never a bad deal, it’s how you structure a deal.” “Don’t cry when you win. Don’t cry when you lose.”

“He would always have these weird sayings and we’d think, ‘What does this have to do with anything?’ And now that we are older, we understand what he was talking about,” Webster said.

Not every venture panned out, however. Wright lost control of Peoples National Bank in 1990 when his holding company couldn’t repay a $3.5 million Miami-Dade County loan. The bank folded nine years later when regulators seized it and sold its assets to Boston Bank of Commerce, another black-owned bank.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, said Wright left a formidable footprint in South Florida.

“Sonny was an astute businessman. He was skilled in his craft and practiced real estate almost like it was a religion,” she said. “He mentored quite a few who eventually went into real estate on their own as a result of his own work. He loved his community, started off in Overtown working in a grocery store on Third Avenue and 10th Street, and he was a great person, a kind and generous family man. He certainly will be missed.”

Wright is also survived by his son John David Wright, daughter Shinekqua Baines and five grandchildren. A viewing will be at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27, at Range Funeral Home, 5727 NW 17th Ave. Miami. Services at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 28, at Antioch Baptist Church, 21311 NW 34th Ave, Miami Gardens.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen