Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Orra Henderson Moore Gray Langhorne, 1841–1904
By Frances S. Pollard for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Orra Henderson Moore Gray Langhorne (8 March 1841–6 May 1904), writer and woman suffrage activist, was born near Harrisonburg in Rockingham County, Virginia, and was the daughter of Algernon S. Gray and Annie Henderson Gray. Her mother died in 1852, and she and two of her sisters lived the remainder of the decade in the household of their widowed uncle Douglas Gray, his children, and his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Pinkney Williams. A member of a prosperous and well-educated family with liberal views, she graduated in 1859 from Hollins Institute (later Hollins University). Her father served in the Virginia Convention of 1861, where he opposed secession. During the Civil War he may have emancipated some of the family slaves and lived for part of the time in Baltimore. She remained in Virginia and visited ill and wounded soldiers in Harrisonburg. A diary or journal she kept during that time does not survive.
On 14 October 1871 Orra Gray married Thomas Nelson Langhorne, a blind businessman from Lynchburg, where they lived and operated a general store. He also owned several properties that she continued renting to African American and white tenants after his death on 31 October 1889. They had no children. By virtue of the marriage she was the aunt of Elizabeth Dabney Langhorne Lewis, also of Lynchburg, who was vice president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia from 1911 to 1920.
Described later by a relative as "a radical by instinct, and a reformer by temperament," Orra Langhorne started to express her views on postwar reconciliation, suffrage, and African American advancement soon after the Civil War. She published numerous articles in local, regional, and national newspapers, and by July 1880 she was a regular correspondent with her own byline in the Southern Workman, a publication of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). Between 1879 and 1901, she presented three papers on the status of African Americans in Virginia to the American Social Science Association, which had been founded in 1865 to bring together social reformers to share research and help coordinate legislation to combat a variety of social problems. Langhorne served as secretary of its Department of Social Economy in 1900–1901. A member of the Woman's National Press Association, based in Washington, D.C., she was elected its vice president from Virginia in January 1895.
Langhorne's views on racial reconciliation and educational opportunities for African Americans were progressive for the times and enjoyed some limited support in Virginia during the brief period of reform under the biracial political coalition known as the Readjusters. She criticized her fellow Virginians for living in the past, but she was also cautiously optimistic that "As time goes on, we may hope that old prejudices and animosities will be forgotten. Why should we see with dead men's eyes? The venerable past is past." Although not obsessed with the Lost Cause, Langhorne struggled to understand the Confederate defeat and the effects of emancipation on both white and black Virginians. In a Southern Workman story entitled "Aunt Pokey's Son," which she also published as a pamphlet in 1890, Langhorne expressed her optimistic views on postwar Virginia and the importance of education and racial reconciliation.
One of the reforms Langhorne actively supported was woman suffrage, for which she twice submitted petitions to the General Assembly. In 1880 she petitioned for women to vote in presidential elections, asking that the assembly take "steps to so amend the constitution as to establish the equal rights of all citizens, irrespective of sex." Fourteen years later she petitioned for the right to vote in state and national elections as a property owner. Two decades after the short-lived Virginia State Woman Suffrage Association founded by Anna Whitehead Bodeker folded, Langhorne revived the campaign for woman suffrage in 1893 by establishing the Virginia Suffrage Society (later the Virginia Woman Suffrage Association), a state auxiliary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As president of the Virginia branch she sat as a vice president of the national organization and also served on its Southern Committee.
Langhorne testified at a United States Senate committee hearing on behalf of women's rights in 1896 along with other suffragists who were members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Despite her best efforts to maintain the Virginia Woman Suffrage Association, the group could not overcome organizational challenges and low membership, and collapsed before the end of the century. In her last report to the national association in 1898 Langhorne remained optimistic, however. "There is a steady increase of progressive sentiment in the State, particularly with the young people," she wrote. "This would be greater but for the determined opposition of many of the clergy." During the mid-1890s, when Langhorne was most active in the cause of woman suffrage, she lived with her sister, Henrietta Gray Daingerfield, and her family in Culpeper County. A fire there destroyed Langhorne's papers and the early records of the Virginia Woman Suffrage Association.
Langhorne's pioneering efforts, although ultimately unsuccessful, were recognized nationally. Her involvement led to appearances in Virginia by Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, but ill health prevented Langhorne from active participation during the last years of her life. She joined her sister in Kentucky early in the new century. Orra Henderson Moore Gray Langhorne died of heart disease on 6 May 1904 at her sister's residence near Lexington, Kentucky, and was buried beside the body of her husband in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg. An obituary in the Southern Workman noted that Langhorne "had the rare courage of her convictions. Her gentle voice and her vigorous pen were at the service of the cause she believed in, whether school improvement, industrial training, temperance, prison reform, woman's advancement, civil service reform, or universal education." Historian Charles E. Wynes published a volume of her Southern Workman essays in 1964 with the title, Southern Sketches from Virginia, 1881–1901, Orra Langhorne.
Birth and death dates on gravestone, Lynchburg Presbyterian Cemetery; biographies in introduction to Charles E. Wynes, ed., Southern Sketches from Virginia, 1881–1901, Orra Langhorne (1964), xv–xxxix (first quotation on xxviii), and Antoinette G. Van Zelm, "Orra Gray Langhorne: A Voice for Reform in Postbellum Virginia," in Virginia Women, Their Lives and Times, ed. Cynthia A. Kierner and Sandra Gioia Treadway (2015–2016), 2:94–114; Marriage Register, Rockingham Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia, Richmond; Langhorne, "Changes of a Half-Century in Virginia," Journal of Social Science 38 (1900): 176 (second quotation); Journal of the House of Delegates of the State of Virginia, 1879–1880 sess., 337 (third quotation); Richmond Star, 29 Jan. 1894; Report of Hearing before the Committee on Woman Suffrage. January 28, 1896, 54th Cong., 1st sess., Senate Doc. 157, 19; Langhorne's annual reports to the National-American Woman Suffrage Association published in its Proceedings for 1894–1898 (fourth quotation in 1898 Proceedings, 112); will in Lynchburg City Will Book J:299–302; obituaries in Lynchburg News, 7 May 1904, by sister Henrietta Langhorne Dandridge in Woman's Journal 35 (21 May 1904): 165, and Southern Workman 33 (1904): 375–376 (fifth quotation).