“A brand new J.C. Penney department store began its commercial life here [Champaign-Urbana] last Thursday [April 20, 1961] with a six-person picket line which has also marched every business day since,” reported a short article in The Chicago Defender. Whether Mrs. Lucy Gray was one of those first African American picketers at J.C. Penney, I could not say; though she certainly joined in the public protests at the store’s refusal to hire African Americans for sales or clerical work. Outspoken, dignified, deeply religious, and an idealist, Lucy Jess Blake Gray (January 2, 1914 – September 13, 2013) was born in Paris, Edgar County, Illinois, to a working-class family—to Frank Blake, in her words a mulatto/Negro man, a plumber and bricklayer; and to Bertha Manuel Blake, a white woman, Both were Illinois natives.
The third of six Blake children, Lucy grew up amidst scarcity: fishing, canning, quilting, coal stoves, straw and feather mattresses, and outhouses. The Blakes lived in poverty throughout the Great War, the Depression and the interwar period. By 1930, Frank and Bertha had divorced, and most of the younger children stayed with their father in Paris; but Lucy’s youngest sibling Billi, who was born in 1924, might have been too small, and it seems Bertha took Billi with her. In documented interviews, Lucy makes no reference to her parents’ separation. Lucy does remember the hardships her mother endured, leading to an early passing. Lucy also remembers her father’s summer itinerant jobs.
Lucy graduated from Paris High School in 1932. Interestingly, for her yearbook portrait, Lucy chose a quote from the fifteenth song in Lord Byron’s Don Juan: “The devil hath not in all his quiver’s choice/An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice.” Not surprisingly, Lucy belonged to the Literary Society and Glee Club, interests later reflected in her membership in Champaign’s Bethel A.M.E. Church Choir. Also, in 1932, after a six-month courtship, Lucy married Louis Mahoney Gray (1906-1958) from Champaign, an African American janitor for the post office, whom she loved dearly. The couple had one son, Steven Frank Gray.
When I met Mrs. Gray, in the fall of 2009, I was doing early dissertation research on her community and congregation, Bethel A.M.E. Church. She had already moved to a small apartment in a retirement home, Canterbury Ridge in Urbana, when I first visited her. The place, small as it was, contained many artifacts from her antique store. Upon entering, a hallway led to a glass cabinet containing textual archives: newspaper clippings about the local African American experience, and related notes in scrapbooks. She dictated the terms of our engagement and she determined the topics of discussion. I learned that she had registered women to vote prior to moving to Champaign. She also had been close friends with Albert Lee, the “unofficial” but first dean of Black students at the University of Illinois (see my profile of Lee in the December 2018 issue of the Public i).. She had challenged gendered norms by becoming the first African American woman to operate the elevator at Kaufman’s department store in downtown Champaign; in time, she was promoted to cashier, salesperson, and clothes buyer at Kaufman’s. And, I learned, she had been among those picketing J.C. Penney in 1961.
Interestingly, Mrs. Gray was hesitant to discuss racism in Illinois. In her interview for the 2007 photographic book collection Listen to the Wisest of All, edited by Rita Blockman and Kimberly Morin, she was asked for her early memories of racism. In reference to her childhood years in Paris, she said she had not experienced it. She said, “Just the churches were segregated, but that was a choice … We felt is [sic] wasn’t segregation, just separate religious teachings.” When I talked to her two years later, she wanted me to see Bethel purely in terms of its religious dimensions or its ability to foster social ties among its members. She was less willing to share her memories of Church members’ participation in civil rights and social justice activism.
The housing situation for Black students at Illinois had been dismal up to the mid-1900s, with the University administration being mindful of the “natural objections” that some citizens had to residential houses in town being required to open their doors to Black fraternities or sororities. Attempting to eat on campus was also problematic; Black students typically received slow service, if not being unlawfully denied any service at all. By 1936, the University Eating Cooperative, a non-profit and non-discriminatory restaurant, had opened and closed; the Home Economics Cafeteria did not have convenient times, and its prices were beyond Black students’ means. Used to being self-sufficient, the Grays opened and modified their home and routines in support of Black students. So did other Black families—the Scotts, the Banks, the Popes, the Lees. They all did so as pivotal enactments of Black solidarity, even if for a modest $3 a month fee per student.
During the 1930s and after the Second World War, Mrs. Gray further explained, “There was not a place for Negroes to stay on the campus; so there were six or seven women in the church, Bethel Church, and we decided to take these students [in] … [In our house] we put a bathroom at the top of the steps, and the outside entrance; [we] fixed it so we could have three student boys, who came here on this VA [Veterans Affairs] scholarship. Nice boys … and they came here because they wanted an education. So those boys [Black university students and war veterans] helped my husband fix that room upstairs … so, we fed them leftover food; we just opened our home to them, and everybody did [the same]. So those three boys stayed here and graduated from the University of Illinois.” Through the years, many others followed those first three African American men to the Gray house, being willing to uplift themselves through education.
Ultimately, despite her own efforts to redress the resistant issues of employment and housing discrimination, Mrs. Gray remained an idealist. She was a faithful Bethel A.M.E. Church congregant active in most church functions, and quite appreciative of her friendships there. Her message aimed to conceive and disseminate community for all. On September 13, 2013, a month after I left Illinois, Mrs. Gray passed away; she was three months shy of her 100th birthday. She was cremated and buried in Edgar Cemetery, in Paris, Illinois.
Dr. Vanessa Rouillon has contributed previous pieces on remarkable Champaign-Urbana African American men and women. These excerpts will be part of a longer manuscript project celebrating African American struggles and contributions toward full citizenship.
- References supplied upon request.