Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,006

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,006


This is the grave of Charles and Charlotte Ray.

Born in 1807, Charles Ray was born as a free Black man in Massachusetts. His father was a mail carrier, which was a good job for a Black man in the early 19th century and really for a long time after that too. He got to go to Wesleyan Seminary in Massachusetts and then in 1832 was the first Black person to attend Wesleyan University. He was kicked out two months later after white students protested against the school’s integration.

Later that year, Ray moved to New York where he ran a shoe shop and then also worked on his ministry. He was a Methodist. He actually was the pastor for two different white-dominated churches in New York, which is really quite fascinating. I’m not sure how common that happened but it can’t have been frequent, even among northern liberal conservatives. Heck, it’s pretty rare today. But he held his last pastorship until the day he died. He committed himself to racial justice as well, fighting hard for abolitionism.

Ray edited the newspaper The Colored American, and became of the nation’s most prominent Black abolitionists. He initially ran the paper with Phillip Alexander Bell but bought out Bell after a year. The paper’s motto goal was to promote “the moral, social and political elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the slaves.” Ray was a big promoter of the Underground Railroad and was the director of the New York Vigilance Committee. This was a biracial group of abolitionists organized by David Ruggles, another free Black abolitionist who took New York’s utter indifference to slavery. Like many abolitionists, Ray took to the road giving speeches on the abolitionist circuit, raising awareness and educating whites as to the reality of slavery. The politics of anti-slavery were as fractious as any leftist movement. People fought and fought and fought and divided into subgroups and stomped away and started new groups. This always happens and it probably always will.

William Lloyd Garrison was a tough guide to deal with. He had very strong opinions about what the abolitionist movement should do, largely around staying above politics or direct action, and had little tolerance for dissent. So when the abolitionist movement under Garrison split over issues of political participation and over whether women should play an active role, Ray wouldn’t join any of the groups as a partisan. He saw his role as trying to smooth over differences and keep people focused on the prize. So that’s something in his favor, though it is worth noting that almost all Black abolitionists more or less rejected Garrison’s vision of avoiding politics after this. Ray was closer to Garrison on radical action to end slavery than he was to most of his Black comrades. He believed that occupying the high moral ground would work. This is ridiculous on the face of it, as the idea that the morality of nonviolence is going to be why that strategy works today, but the influence of evangelical religion was strong during these years and Ray was a believer in it. So when Henry Highland Garnet issued radical statements about active resistance, Ray pushed back on this. On the other hand, Garnet was playing around with colonization schemes that would get Black Americans out of the country and back to Africa, as if that’s where they wanted to go. Ray completely rejected this, saying that they were Americans and this was their home and they would not leave, which was the opinion of the vast majority of Black people. He was also a huge suffragist, demanding suffrage for Black men at the very least. He continued to have this fight after the Civil War. After all this, Ray remained an activist for the rest of his life, working a lot of Black education. He died in 1886, at the age of 78.

Also here is Ray’s daughter Charlotte. She was the daughter of Charles’ second wife. His first had died in 1836 and then he married Charlotte Augusta Burroughs in 1840. Charlotte the daughter was of course named after her mother. Born in 1850 in New York City, she grew up in the strongly reformist milieu of her family. They also believed in education for women and Charlotte and her sisters attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington. This was the rare high school for Black women and Charlotte graduated in 1869. She then went on to Howard University, where she taught and went to law school. When she graduated from the Howard University School of Law and was admitted to the bar in Washington in 1872, she became the first Black female lawyer in American history.

Ray was the first woman period to argue cases in D.C., working on a divorce case where she represented a woman attempt to escape an abusive husband. She won that case too, which was very difficult for women to do during these years. She also became something of an expert on corporate law. But because she was Black and a woman, she had trouble getting cases period and what that meant is that despite her clear expertise and skill, she had a lot of trouble supporting herself. She didn’t marry until the late 1880s so she was financially independent during these years. So for awhile, she left D.C. and returned to New York and worked as a teacher so she could eat. Ray was also a strong suffragist, pushing white suffragists to be less racist, not with a lot of success. But she attended the National Woman Suffrage Association meeting in New York in 1870 and after that was active with the National Association of Colored Women.

In 1897, Ray and her husband moved out to Long Island. I’m not sure how politically active she remained in her last years and it seems she largely disappeared from the public records around this time. She died of a really bad case of bronchitis in 1911. She was 60 years old.

Charles and Charlotte Ray are buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other pioneering Black Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The chemist Mary Eliot Hill is in Norfolk, Virginia and the NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson is in Hampton, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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