Margaret and Joe Wright
Born in 1942 at the first integrated hospital in the South, Austin's Holy Cross – closed in 1989 as the last of its kind on the Eastside – Wright enjoyed a pleasant childhood in a musical family. She admits to being rough around the edges, especially with her sister.
"I was a destructive little girl. I was not a good child. I think I did it for the attention.
"I wanted to play the piano, because my mom played for church. My sister played piano, and also taught music. She was older than I was. Naturally, there was a sibling rivalry, but she was smarter than I was.
"She played more instruments – violin, piano. I wanted to do it like she did."
Already performing, Margaret enrolled at Huston-Tillotson, then the only college option locally for blacks. After graduating in 1964, she became an educator. Five decades later, she still teaches music to children at the Texas Preparatory School.
"I teach music, and I mean I teach it," she emphasizes. "Music is discipline. Music got my attention, and it calmed me down. I wanted to do something where I could really feel successful. We all want to feel successful."
Wright looks over at her popcorn-snacking husband of 50 years, Joe Wright, a burly former Marine with a friendly disposition. They met in church and reconnected when he was home on leave. The two hit it off, but his military service proved problematic. Involvement in the Vietnam War, given the period, would've been likely, so an ultimatum was placed.
"She said, 'Well, if you're gonna stay in the Marines, we can't get married. I don't want to be married to somebody that might go fight and get killed,'" explains a bemused Joe Wright. "I said, 'You know what? That ain't no big deal.' I got out."
Joe, like Margaret, went to the original L.C. Anderson High School, which was then a mostly black school. A former football player, he played on its 1956 3A championship team. The current school displays nothing from the original, which is both curious and telling.
"Lord, we don't have time to tell you about East Austin, honey," snorts Margaret Wright about the changes to the Eastside, a transformation she says has been accomplished with overt malice and hostility. "Instead of building on what was already here, they destroyed it – took it away. You don't do that, but it is what it is. Nobody has to agree with me.
"My mother would say, 'Be careful how you treat people,'" she continues. "There's a biblical scripture that says you have to be cautious on how you treat people, because you may be entertaining angels."
As showtime closes in at the Skylark, the multicultural crowd grows. All persons, from all backgrounds, walk up or wave, excited for Wright's performance. For someone born, raised, and performing in Austin since Jim Crow was alive and well, this remains no small feat.
"Why do I play gay clubs? Why do I play wherever? I don't label. [Growing up], I played all kinds of churches. Everywhere. They wanted us to be exposed to different types of people. I just kept going.
"I'd play the Driskill from six to eight, because I had school in the daytime. I played Ego's, Cloak Room, Back 40, 505, Charlie's, you name it – Cedar Street. When Johnny called, I was like, 'What do you want me to do?' He said, 'I want you to do what you always do.' That made it very easy for me."
Wright's anxiousness grows visible. She's ready to give the people what they want. She's gracious in exit, but doesn't hide her relief in escaping. Playing with no set list – as she's always done – the pianist enjoys the pleasures of spontaneity and the alleviation of life's pressures.
"People come out to be uplifted, not to be put down. I've come through enough struggle. We all struggle. Every day is a struggle. I've had all kinds of surgeries. [I thought], 'Am I going to get through these?' And I was a young woman. I didn't expect to live this long. I'm the last of my family, after my sister, my mother, my grandfather, grandmother.
Margaret currently plays the happy hour every Thursday and Friday from 6-8pm at the Skylark Lounge.