John Henderson Cartwright, African American university professor and lecturer, son of Dennis Cartwright and Willie Mae Davis, was born on August 17, 1933, in Houston, Texas. Cartwright was educated in the public schools of Houston and graduated with honors from Phillis Wheatley High School in 1950. Like the other top graduates of 1950, he distinguished himself professionally. He spent many years as an educator, lecturer, university administrator, minister, and scholar.
After leaving Wheatley High School, John Cartwright entered Wiley College where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in 1954 before entering Boston University where he earned a bachelor of sacred theology in 1957 and a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion and social ethics in 1972. During his graduate studies at Boston University, he had two famous fellow students: Martin Luther King, Jr., and fellow Wheatley classmate Barbara Jordan.
Over the course of his career, Cartwright held a number of distinguished professorial and ministerial appointments and positions that included visiting professor at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Oxford University and professor of religion and sociology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University. He was also an ordained minister in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. However, the high point of his career came in 1976 when he was appointed as the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University. In addition to this appointment, he held a number of other positions there as well: assistant dean and instructor in the School of Public Communication; chairman of the department of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics in the School of Theology; academic coordinator for the Howard Thurman Center; and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Afro-American Center.
Cartwright was often an invited guest speaker and lecturer for a wide variety of settings and occasions. Travel in this regard took him around the world to such places and countries as Southern Africa, Great Britain, Korea, Jamaica, Canada, Thailand, Japan, and Bermuda. He also produced an impressive list of scholarly and professional publications in his lifetime.
Cartwright retired from Boston University as professor emeritus in 1988. Over the course of his career he received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Lilly Endowment fellowship, a human relations fellowship from Boston University, a fellowship in academic administration from the American Council of Education, a Crusade Fellowship from the United Methodist Church, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center Freedom Award for Community Service. He also served as executive secretary for the Society of Christian Ethics and was an active member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
While in graduate school, John Henderson Cartwright met and married Barbara Gloria Fripp, a fellow graduate student and native of St. Helena Island, South Carolina. They were married for fifty-one years and were the parents of three children—Kevin, Kristine, and Kimberly. Cartwright passed away at his home on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, on April 22, 2011. His wife preceded him in death.
Is history important to you?
We need your support because we are a non-profit organization that relies upon contributions from our community in order to record and preserve the history of our state. Every dollar helps.
Boston Globe, May 27, 2011. Wheatley Metropolitan Alumni Association, 85th Celebration Souvenir Booklet for Phillis Wheatley High School.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Etta F. Walker,
“Cartwright, John Henderson,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed July 02, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
May 20, 2014
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: