William Henry Grey was born on December 22, 1829 in Washington, D.C. His mother was Elizabeth Grey, who was a slave until being granted her freedom by Henry Alexander Wise. Wise was a U.S. Congressman from Virginia and there were rumors that William was his son. Although Wise never officially recognized him, he followed the Senator everywhere. Elizabeth was the only slave ever to be granted her freedom by Wise, so William was born free. Young William would be by Henry Wise even when he was on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a young boy, he attended the “pay school” of John F. Cook. Later Henry Wise would serve as a Confederate General and become famous as the man who executed John Brown.
William Henry Grey.
His Mother Elizabeth became involved with someone she met in Washington, had several more children, and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Soon after, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where his mother passed away from cholera in 1852. Grey moved to St. Louis, Missouri and worked as a cook on steamboats going up and down the Mississippi River. In 1854, he married Henrietta Winslow. They would have nine children together. Their names were Nancy, Nathaniel, William, Edward, Oliver, Ulysses, Charles, Susan, and Anna. In addition to working on the river, he also served as a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although William registered for the draft, he never served in the Civil War. When the war ended, his family moved further south to the city of Helena, Arkansas. There William founded a grocery store and bakery with his partners Oliver Winslow and H.B. Robinson.
In 1867, William Henry Grey was elected as one of four Phillips County delegates to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868. Altogether, there were eight African American delegates at that convention and they supported the Republican platform promoting the rights of freedmen in the state. Freedmen was the name given to African Americans who had been former slaves. He served on several important committees at the convention and offered one resolution establishing federal aid for the poor and allowing freedmen to homestead government land. Also, Grey took to the floor 25 times to argue against measures proposed by the pro-confederate Democrats against freedmen.
On January 13, 1868, William Grey gave the following speech in response to one of those proposals. Below is an excerpt:
“African Americans had earned citizenship by right of purchase on the numerous battle fields of our country. From the Revolution through the Civil War, African American citizens had stood unswervingly by our country and flag. They had fought for liberty, which could not be secured without their receiving suffrage rights. For their loyalty, the federal government owed them a debt. We are here to receive the amount due us from the State of Arkansas. Pay us sir, the rights and privileges due us as citizens of the United States and the State of Arkansas.”
Grey served as a state legislator in both 1869 and 1872. In 1870, he was appointed clerk of the First Circuit Court and ex-Offico Recorder of Deeds. In 1872, he became the first African American to address a national presidential nominating convention, seconding the nomination of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Clipping from the Harrisburg Telegraph in Harrisburg, Dauphin, Pennsylvania on June 6, 1872- William H. Grey speaks at Republican Convention June 6, 1872-Newspapers.com
“Words failed him at the present time to express himself. he scarcely knew where to begin. If he raised the curtain of the past, he would recall unpleasant recollections. He and his race were ready to “let the dead past bury it’s dead,” and go in the progress to fit themselves for the duties which had been conferred upon them within the past few years. They had fairly worked out the problem so far as they had gone. The colored delegates were here as part and parcel of the American people, and they were here to advocate the man who had said, “Let us have peace.” Few people knew of the political situation in the South. Ku Kluxism but sleep in the South, and but for the firm hand of President Grant it would have been stalking boldly across the land. The colored men of the South wanted Grant for four more years. His name would be a great tower of strength. The laws of the Southern States were so weak that common civilities were denied the colored men. They wanted the Civil Rights bill. He wanted to go home to the colored people and say that the Republican Party of the North was a unit for Grant. Horace Greely is like Abraham of old, who took Hagar instead of Sarah. the colored people are the legitimate sons of the old man, and will stand by Grant and not be led by Horace. The negroes knew who their friends were, and they were well aware of the fact that there was no foothold for them outside the Republican Party. (Applause) He prayed that the Republican ranks might be solid in the coming contest. ”
From 1872 to 1874, William Grey was Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands. While on assignment to New York in 1873 to supervise arrangements for Arkansas’s exhibit at the World Exposition in the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna, he suffered a stroke. This forced him to return to Little Rock for medical care. Grey then moved back to Helena. Although not well, he served as clerk of Phillips County probate and county courts. In September 1878, William suffered another stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He passed away on November 8, 1888. William Henry Grey is buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Helena, Arkansas.
Military and U.S. Census Records from Ancestry.com
U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records: 1863 – 1865
- birth year about 1829, age on July 1, 1863 was 34, race: Black, Married, St. Louis, Missouri, Congressional District was the 1st.
- his job was listed as porter
1860 U.S. Census: William Gray; age 30; birth year about 1830; birth place was District of Columbia; Home- St. Louis Ward 3, St. Louis, Missouri; Post Office was St. Louis; Occupation- steam boatman. Other members of the household were Henrietta, Nancy, Nathaniel, and Edward
1870 U.S. Census: William H. Gray; aged 40; birth year about 1830 in the District of Columbia; Home was St. Frances, Phillips, Arkansas; Occupation was U.S. Assessor Assistant; personal estate was $500.00. Other members of the household were Henrietta, Nancy, William, Charles, Ulysses, and Susan.
1880 U. S. Census: W.H. Grey, aged 50; birth date about 1830 in Washington, D.C.; living on Poplar Street; married; Mother’s birthplace- Washington D.C.; Father’s birthplace- Washington, D.C.; occupation- farmer; sick- paralysis. Other members of the household were Henrietta, Charles, Oliver, Anna, and Nancy.
William H. Grey- Encyclopedia of Arkansas. www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
William H. Grey – Arkansas Black Lawyers. arkansasblacklawyers.uark.edu
William H. Grey speaks at a Republican Convention. http://www.newspapers.com
Publications of the Arkansas Historical Association. genealogytrails.com
The Constitution of 1868 | Civil War Helena. civilwarhelena.com
Debates and Proceedings of the Convention which assembled at Little Rock, page 92. books.google.com
A trip to Richmond, Virginia, feminist analysis- The Feminist Wire. thefeministwire.com
Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900. – 86 Justice Should Recognize No Color: William H. Grey books.google.com