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William H. Grey was born December 22, 1829, in Washington, D.C., the son of free parents. He arrived in Arkansas from Missouri in 1863 and settled in Helena (Phillips County), Arkansas. He established himself as a business man and planter, and quickly became active and influential in Republican state politics. Although he had only a rudimentary formal education, Grey had learned parliamentary procedure some time before 1856 while he accompanied his employer, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, to sessions of Congress.
In 1868, the first year that the bulk of the African- American population could vote in Arkansas, Grey was among the eight African-American members elected to the second post-Civil War Constitutional Convention. He was considered the most “articulate” of the eight. He spoke on the convention floor more than 25 times, primarily on matters relating to African-American welfare. He and other African-American representatives voted as a block for continuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and against a minority report that would have restricted the right to vote to white males.
A new state Constitution was passed on March 14, 1868, with the vote of all eight African-Americans and 52 other delegates. It guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote and to hold public office, and provided for free public, but segregated, schools.
Grey was later elected to the legislature from Phillips County in 1868-69. He also represented the state as a Republican presidential elector at the national convention in 1868. Grey was admitted to the practice of law on July 6, 1869, but there is no indication that he ever practiced as an attorney. Republican Governor Powell Clayton appointed Grey as Clerk of the Circuit Court in Phillips County and Ex-Officio Recorder of Deeds for several counties in 1870. Republican Governor Baxter appointed Grey as Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands in 1872.
In 1874, the Democratic Party regained the governorship and a legislative majority. The legislature immediately voted to hold a third post-war Constitutional Convention. When it was announced, Grey spoke out against it, correctly anticipating that the delegates would try to take away African-American citizenship rights. In 1875, he was elected to fill a vacancy in the state Senate. In the 1880 Census, Grey is listed as paralyzed and he disappeared from politics after his state Senate service.
Having joined the St. John Masonic Lodge in Cincinnati in 1852, Grey was named first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas when it was established in 1873. He was married to Henrietta Winslow of Cincinnati, and they had nine children (among them Nancy R, William, Charles, Susan, Anna, and Oliver). A member of the A.M.E. Church, which he joined in 1860, Grey was also a local preacher. He died on November 8, 1888, and the Grand Lodge erected a magnificent monument marking his grave in Helena.
Correspondence from Grey’s descendants indicates that the portrait shown here may not be correctly identified. The competing version is located in Eric Foner’s book Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, allegedly mis-identified as Mifflin W. Gibbs. (The Gibbs photo on this site comes from his autobiography and should be accurate.)
Sources: Judith Kilpatrick, “(EXTRA)Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas Before 1950,” 53 Ark. Law Rev. 299, 299 n2, 302 n7, 312 n76, 315-18, 320, 325-26, 330, 345 (2000); Llewellyn W. Williamson, Black Footprints around Arkansas 61-62 (1979); Joseph M. St. Hilaire, “The Negro Delegates in the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868, a group profile 6-8 (Washington State University 1970); Howard N. Rabinowitz, Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era 139 (1982); William H. Grey, “Justice Should Recognize No Color,” in Lift Every Voice, African American Oratory 1787-1900, 473-75 (1998); Notes from Grey tombstone, Helena, AR, by Judith Kilpatrick; Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Arkansas, Little Rock, Nov 30, Dec 1-2, 1865, 4-12 (1866); Blake J. Wintory, African-American Legislators in the Arkansas General Assembly, 1868-1893, LXV Ark. Hist. Q. 385 (Wint 2006); Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction 90 (1993); Carter G. Woodson (ed.), “Speech of William H. Gray before the Arkansas Constitutional Convention, 1868,” in 5 Journal of Negro History 239 (1920);
Copyright ©2003 Judith Kilpatrick, all rights reserved