Last week it was announced that a new series would be executive produced by Mary J. Blige’s newly formed production company, Philly Reign.
Written by Empire twin writing duo JaNeika and JaSheika James, the drama series is set to air on USA Network. The new show will chronicle the life of Thelma Wright, a woman who once ruled as Philly’s “Queenpin” during the 1980’s drug epidemic.
After Thelma’s husband, Jackie Wright, was murdered, leaving behind a drug legacy with ties to the Black Mafia, she took the throne in his stead.
In 1991, she left the game behind to brave a new life for herself and her son and eventually forged a voice for herself as a motivational speaker and mentor to at-risk teens and incarcerated women.
I had a chance to speak to the woman behind the legend and hear first-hand about her incredible journey.
Thelma Wright met her husband, Jackie, when she returned to her hometown of Philadelphia after attending Temple University.
Young and teeming with promise and ambition, she was attracted to Jackie’s expensive lifestyle and influence and began a courtship that led to the couple’s marriage.
Thelma admits to being somewhat complicit to the realities of her husband’s drug trade because of the lifestyle it afforded them and their son, Jacky, who was born in 1982.
When her husband was murdered four years later, Thelma found herself in a position to make a bold move into her husband’s role.
“When I look back on it now, I think I was a little crazy. I think I was caught at a vulnerable time with my husband’s death and that position being dropped in my lap. It was really a strange kind of a thing,” says Wright.
Over the next five years, Thelma did what she needed to do to sustain herself and her son. “I just felt like a woman who had finally come into her own, and I was able to control my own life and do the things that I wanted to do.” Control her life, she did -- during her reign, she orchestrated the transport of cocaine and heroin between Philadelphia and Los Angeles by utilizing her late husband’s business ties.
But everything came to a chilling halt in the summer of 1991 when three tragedies stopped Thelma in her tracks.
Her friend was killed in a shootout, her associate was arrested and sent to prison and a month later her connect was executed by a rival gang.
“It was three things that happened that were three complete major tragedies and I just felt like I had no other choice but to walk away from that life and to never look back.” Leaving behind the drug game felt like an obvious choice for Thelma once the realities of the life were staring her in the face.
“I was facing the possibility of jail or I could be killed,” Thelma said. “So for me, there was no other choice.” Thelma’s new life as an ex-Queenpin was now full of the harsh realities of single motherhood.
She had the support of her parents to help in the raising of her young son and money that her late husband put aside to provide for his education.
But without the lucrative drug trade to support herself, Thelma had to look for full-time work. “I started out with a job making $19,000 a year,” Thelma chuckled. “Can you imagine?”
The notorious crime boss was suddenly navigating the corporate ladder and like so many women, found an unforgiving glass ceiling. She worked twice as hard to get half as far and was passed up for raises and promotions. But Thelma pressed on and eventually found financial stability working in real estate.
In 2011, she decided to face the life she left behind once again to write a tell-all memoir called With Eyes on Both Sides: Living My Life In and Out of the Game.
In 2015, Thelma founded the Thelma Wright Foundation, which aims to motivate young at-risk women to focus on “education over incarceration“ and avoid getting caught up in gangs and drugs -- especially when led there by the men in their lives.
For Thelma, writing her book was part of her atonement. “To be able to see the damage that has been done through the drug trade, I can’t take full responsibility for all of that, but I did play a part in that. So that’s why it’s so important for me now to work in prison reform.”
Now Thelma uses her voice to speak to women and men in the prison system and in high schools. She especially tailors her message to teenage girls who may be on the cusp of the very life Thelma found herself in.
“Young women seem to be very lost. I’ve traveled the country and spoke to many male and female inmates. Women are increasingly incarcerated and mostly due to drugs,” says Wright.
Since 1980, in tandem with the crack epidemic, there has been a steady increase in women being incarcerated in the U.S. Today, the U.S. has the largest population of women inmates in the world, and the second largest, Russia, doesn’t even come close.
Thelma knows the pull that attracts impressionable women to men who are making dangerous moves. How that can distract them from the goals they set for themselves and veer them off on a path that can take away their freedom.
“Opposites attract and they have a dream to better their lives, but they’re attracted to a man who is in the streets.” Thelma wastes no words when speaking to these young girls. “I try to give our young women something to think about -- consider your options. Because one wrong decision can change your life forever.”
It’s no wonder why Thelma Wright’s life has been made into episodes of crime documentaries like Gangsters: America's Most Evil or why it was an attractive project for Mary J. Blige, whom Thelma formed a sisterly bond with through the development process.
What’s even more amazing than her incredible story is Thelma herself, who believes more than anything that women have the power to change their lives at any turn.
Thelma hopes to continue working with incarcerated men and women and be a resource for prison reform in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. She especially hopes her message rings true to any woman who ever finds herself with her back against the wall.
"We are natural survivors," Thelma says. "And we do what we need to do."
(Photo: The Wright Family)