Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Celia Gray, 1840-?


By Blair Forlaw, Citizen Researcher

In 1877, 33 African-American women and men of Washington, DC signed a Petition for Woman Suffrage. One of them was Miss Celia Gray.

Celia Gray and the other signers identified themselves as residents of the District of Columbia's Uniontown development. It is likely, however, that members of the group actually came from areas neighboring Uniontown and that they assembled there for a meeting concerning women's voting rights or other issues pressing African Americans as Reconstruction came to an end in the South.

Prior to 1877, the Uniontown development east of the Anacostia River in Washington was subject to restrictive covenants that prohibited people of African or Irish descent from buying or leasing property within it. These covenants were breached that year when the developer of the area went bankrupt from the Economic Panic of 1873 and sold his spacious mansion on a hill to the civil rights advocate and suffragist Frederick Douglass.

We know from biographies and other histories that Frederick Douglass was a gregarious man who often opened his home to meetings and other gatherings of people who shared his commitment to social causes. We also know that his son Frederick Douglass, Jr., his daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague, and their spouses provided the first signatures on the 1877 petition. And so we might reasonably imagine that the Douglass siblings hosted a gathering of African-American neighbors at their father's new home in Uniontown and that a petition was passed around to those assembled at that time.

Suggesting such a conclusion illustrates the dilemma facing researchers of many African-American women who were in the background of the sustained struggle for suffrage. The women's stories are not often available in coherent narratives, but rather in series of points in time and place, in relationships, and in questions that must be tied together with earnest intention and imagination in order to paint a picture of their lives. This is certainly the case with Miss Celia Gray.

When the Petition for Woman Suffrage was signed in Uniontown in 1877, Celia Gray was living at 461 Ridge Road, near the southeastern boundary of the District of Columbia. This location places her three miles from Uniontown, requiring what was then a manageable walk to visit Frederick Douglass's home on the hill.

Celia's residence was near Fort Dupont, one of 68 Civil War forts and batteries constructed around the perimeter of Washington, DC in the early days of the Civil War in order to protect the nation's capital from Confederate incursions. Free blacks and escaped slaves congregated around Fort Dupont during and after the War, seeking the protection of Union troops who did not practice slavery and who considered escaped slaves as "contraband of war" not to be surrendered to their former owners. Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act in 1862 - nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and so it should not be surprising that more than 25,000 African Americans came to Washington, DC during the Civil War (1861 - 1865) and Reconstruction (1865 - 1877) in search of relative safety.


We cannot know for certain if Celia Gray was among those who moved to the nation's capital to escape the dangers that faced African Americans in neighboring states. But we do know that she moved around quite a bit while she was living in the District of Columbia.

According to the City Directory, Celia changed addresses six times during the seven years between 1877 and 1884, crossing the Anacostia River to locations deep within the larger District of Columbia. The Directory identifies her variously as a servant, a washer, a domestic, and a widow with no occupation. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Celia was living in poverty, moving from place to place where she could find work. Wages were not high for low-skill occupations such as hers, and the yearly wage for female domestic servants was half the wage for males in similar occupations in Washington at that time.

Celia's low economic status differentiated her from the Douglass siblings, who were well-educated and in positions of some civic responsibility. Race and geographic proximity appear to be the shared characteristics of the Uniontown petition signers, rather than economic or social class.

By 1885, Celia Gray had settled at a location where she would remain until 1894. Her dwelling at 1611 6th Street, NW was on a street lined with African-American Protestant churches in the District's Shaw neighborhood, a bustling community that had been named after the Civil War colonel who had led the Mass 102nd (Colored) Regiment. The community had been established as a freed slave encampment. Howard University was established there as a theological school for black preachers in 1866 and was designated a university for African Americans in 1867. The Shaw neighborhood thrived as a center of black culture in Washington, DC in the 19th Century. It seems likely that Celia Gray would have found a supportive community and work opportunities there.

In 1893, Depression once again hit the United States, with impacts in urban areas especially hard through 1896. In the midst of it, Celia Gray disappeared from mention in the Washington, DC City Directory. We know nothing of her life in Washington after 1894 except for this: In 1910, a public notice appeared in the Washington Herald, announcing that goods belonging to Celia Gray and stored at the U.S. Storage Facility would be sold at public auction in one week's time. The storage facility was located not far from her last known address.

What had happened to Celia Gray? While we cannot know for certain, a most interesting and plausible possibility is that she moved out of the area in the midst of the economic downturn, abandoning her goods in storage, seeking a better life. Her quest may have taken her 100 miles south, back to Virginia, where 1910 Census records indicate she had been born in 1840 Celia's journey to Virginia sheds interesting light on the complex racial dynamics of life in a Southern state after Reconstruction.

Celia Gray's name appears in an April 1901 notice in the Richmond Planet, a weekly paper started by 13 former slaves in 1882 and widely read in the African-American community until it ceased publication in 1938. The article identifies Sister Celia Gray as one of the "officers of the day" scheduled to march several blocks ceremoniously in line to the Ebenezer Baptist Church for the 21st Annual Sermon to be preached for members of the Tabernacle of the general Grand Accepted Order of Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity of Richmond.

The Grand Accepted Order of Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity was an African-American fraternal organization, one of many that flourished after the Civil War as "self-selecting, ritually based brotherhoods and sisterhoods devoted to mutual aid and community service." In some communities, fraternal organizations were second only to churches as trusted institutions to help individuals and families in difficult times. The Grand Accepted Order that Celia belonged to was first organized in North Carolina in 1872, but had lodges (sometimes with variations on the name) in Virginia, Louisiana, and Washington, DC. Had Celia joined this organization while she was living in Washington? Was the order part of a supportive community that attracted her to Richmond?

Around that time, Celia Gray was living one mile from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the East Main Street household of a white attorney, Edwin P. Cox. Cox was a 39-year-old widower with two small children, according to the 1910 Census. In addition to his immediate family, his household included a 66 year-old widowed aunt and six unmarried African Americans. Celia (now 70 years of age) and two others were listed as servants; the other three were lodgers employed elsewhere. Providing lodging for unrelated Black citizens seems an unusual arrangement for a white head-of-household in Richmond at the time - especially given the interests and vocation of Edwin Cox.


In 1896, as a young man in his 20s, Edwin Cox founded the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, became its first commander, and wrote a paper in support of the Confederate cause. As a lawyer active in civic affairs in 1904, he was elected to represent Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates, an office he still held in 1910 when Celia Gray was a servant in his household. He later became Speaker of the Virginia House.

In 1911, Edwin Cox was appointed to the newly formed Legislative Committee of the Virginia Equal Suffrage League. The Equal Suffrage League organized and advocated diligently within the state, engaging more than 30,000 members and numerous organizational endorsements by the end of its campaign to secure the vote for women in 1920. Despite the League's hard work, Virginia opponents of the suffrage amendment were formidable, arguing that giving all women the right to vote would bring black women to the polls, thereby threatening the hold of white supremacy in the state.

The Suffrage League avoided addressing the issue of race until late in the decade-long campaign, when they finally took a public stand assuring Virginians that white supremacy would not be threatened by woman suffrage. The League pointed to the fact there were 191,000 more white women than black in the state and that effective measures, such as the literacy test and poll tax, were already in place to restrict black voting. In 1916, the League published a pamphlet entitled "Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote," asserting that "the enfranchisement of Virginia women would increase white supremacy" and "we are secure from negro domination now-then, even more."

In 1920, women achieved the constitutionally protected right to vote in the United States when the required 36 states ratified the 19th Amendment. But the Commonwealth of Virginia was not one of the ratifying states. The Suffrage League disbanded that year and reorganized as the League of Women Voters. Virginia did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952.

Was Celia Gray aware of the work of the Virginia Equal Suffrage League and Edwin P. Cox's role in it? Was Celia herself a petitioner for women's suffrage in Virginia? Did she speak out against the racist arguments that were made? We might like to imagine, but we do not know.

By the time the Equal Suffrage League closed its doors in 1920, Edwin P. Cox - then a circuit court judge - had remarried. Two new baby girls complemented the family he started with his first wife. His elderly cousin had moved back to North Carolina to live with her son.

And as for Celia Gray, she and the five other African Americans who lived in Edwin Cox's home in 1910 had dispersed to fates unknown, taking their life stories with them.


1877 Petition for Woman Suffrage. Petitions and Memorials. 1878. Committee on the Judiciary. Petitions and Memorials, 1813-1968. 45th Congress. National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

A Brief History of African Americans in Washington,

Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia. Volumes for the years 1860 - 1900 reviewed at the Kiplinger Library of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia.

Celia Gray at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond. Richmond planet. [volume] (Richmond, Va.), 20 April 1901. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Celia Gray's goods to be sold at auction. The Washington herald. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 07 Jan. 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States 1910 - Population. Richmond City. Accessed at

Edwin Cox appointed to Equal Suffrage League Legislative Committee. The times dispatch. [volume] (Richmond, Va.), 20 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Equal Suffrage and the Woman Vote" 1916.

Equal Suffrage League of Virginia (1909-1920).

History of Howard University.

National Park Service. Fort Dupont Park, Washington, DC.

Powell, Francis J. "A Statistical Profile of the Black Family in Washington, DC 1850-1880." Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC. Vol. 52. Published by the Historical Society of Washington, DC. P. 278.

Richmond planet

Skocpol, Theda; Ariane Liazos; Marshall Ganz. What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African-American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Princeton University Press. 2006. pp. xi and 236. Accessed online.

Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The Depression of 1893.

Uniontown. https://en/ and https:///

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Financial Panic of 1873.


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