Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Katherine Gray, 1870-1956


By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, SUNY Binghamton

Katherine West was born in Kingston, NY in 1870, daughter of Frank and Eliza West. Her father was a canal boatman in 1870 and he could not read or write. In 1888 she married Harry M. Gray and by 1895 the couple was living in Portland, OR. Harry had been born in Tennessee and was recorded as a gold miner in the 1900 census and an unspecified miner in 1910. In the latter year, Katherine was recorded as a laundress working on her own. In 1900 the couple had 4 children, ages 5 to 12, living with them; a son Severn died of tuberculosis in 1909 and Archibald died in 1912. A third child, Catherine Elizabeth, died shortly after her birth in August 1914. The two older children, Ethel, 21, and Edith, 20, worked as a private nurse (1906-1910) and a hair dresser (1909-1910), respectively. In both census years, Katherine's mother, Eliza West, resided with the family. Harry Gray passed away in February 1920.

With so many employed family members, the Grays enjoyed a measure of economic prosperity. They purchased a home at 4827 Franklin St. in 1917. The home stayed in the family through at least 1956.

The Gray family dispersed in 1920, just after Harry's death, but at least three family members continued to live in Portland. Elder daughter Ethel married Bert Turner, a black musician, in 1917 and the couple settled in the city, with Bert working first as a janitor but later as a musician and then a music director. Eliza West lived on her own, a 66-year-old laundress in 1920, on a block housing Russian Jewish immigrants. Katherine is missing from the 1920 Portland census, but was recorded in city directories in 1920 and 1924, at which date she worked as an attendant. City records show that Katherine continued to live in Portland, working at a public restroom between 1920 and 1931. By 1930 Katherine was recorded in the Portland census as a 59-year-old widow living with her 78-year-old mother. Katherine worked as a matron in a rest room and owned their home, valued at $3,000. Mother and daughter continued to live together in Portland in 1940, at 4827 SE Franklin St, the house Katherine had purchased in 1917. By 1940 Bert and Ethel lived only a few doors away from Katherine and Eliza. Katherine continued to work as a matron of a restroom in a city park, now at the age of 68. Eliza died in 1941 and Katherine passed away, still living at SE 4827 Franklin St., in 1956.

Katherine and her younger daughter Edith played significant roles in Portland's woman suffrage movement beginning in 1912. The suffrage campaign that year was the fourth such effort in Oregon since 1906. The three previous campaigns had been defeated and Oregon's woman suffrage movement was sharply divided by the imperious leadership in these years of Abigail Scott Duniway. Votes for woman suffrage declined across the three failed campaigns from 44 percent to 37 percent. In 1912, illness kept Duniway in the background and a diverse coalition of groups came together in support of woman suffrage, including the state's farmers' organization, the Grange. One historian has counted 23 suffrage organizations in the Portland area in 1912 and another 8 "endorsing organizations." These included a Men's Equal Suffrage Club and the Portland Woman's Club, both endorsing woman suffrage. A broad coalition of groups emerged to back the campaign including Chinese American and black suffragists.

Out of staters joined the campaign as the absence of Duniway from active leadership encouraged NAWSA activists to lend their support. NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw made an appearance in September. In the November vote, fully 52 percent supported woman suffrage, an increase of 15 percent over the 1910 tally.

In early 1912 black residents of Portland came together from the black churches in the city to form the Colored Women's Equal Suffrage League (CWESL) and to join in the campaign that year for woman suffrage, Katherine Gray became the League's vice-president and Edith served as treasurer. In September the Woman's Home and Foreign Missionary Society held a fundraising event at the First AME Zion church in Portland and Katherine Gray gave an address to the group titled "Woman Suffrage." A representative of the CWESL worked with white suffragists on the State Central Campaign Committee that coordinated the statewide effort that succeeded in winning women the vote in November 1912. When the Central Campaign Committee issued proclamations on the eve of the election, they did so on behalf of "Presidents of all the suffrage organizations in Portland," which pointedly included the CWESL.

Katherine registered to vote in April 1913 and remained committed to community work. In 1914 she served as president of the Colored Women's Council (see image below). In 1917 the Council joined with other Colored Women's Clubs across the state to form the Oregon Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (OFCWC), with Katherine serving as its first president. In January 1930, as president emeritus, she presided over the annual conference of the of CWC.

Katherine also participated actively in broader church and community affairs in Portland before and after the granting of woman suffrage. She was one of the founders of the Harriet Tubman Club in Portland, an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women. in 1911 and 1916 she sang solos in celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation, an annual event in Portland's black community. In 1919 she served as treasurer with responsibility as well for the sabbath observance and anti-narcotics department of the Lucy Thurman W.C.T.U., a colored branch of the W.C.T.U. She was also a member of the Enterprise chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a black fraternal organization. In 1915, she joined with two other black suffragists, Hattie Redmond and Beatrice Morrow Cannady, to protest the showing of "The Birth of a Nation" in Portland. In 1918 she was appointed district president of the Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the AME Zion Church. In September 1920, Katherine was serving as president of the Colored Women's Republican Club and she pledged the club's support for the current Republican campaign. A 1921 article in the Oregon Daily Journal notes that she served on a YWCA committee that established and managed a colored branch of that organization. Her obituary in February 1956 noted that she was a founder of the AME Zion Church in Portland and served as the director of the church choir for forty years.

Katherine Gray lived, worked, and organized in Portland for fully six decades. She raised four children, worked as a laundress and matron, cared for her aging mother, contributed to black community institutions, and allied with white activists in the final struggle for woman suffrage. Her life is a testament to the multi-dimensional character of black women's activism in the twentieth century. She is memorialized by the Katherine Gray Club, one of the members today of the Oregon Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and by the awarding of the annual Katherine Gray Scholarship.


Katherine Gray, 1913, from "Officers of the Colored Women's Council,"
In The Advocate, 20 December 1913, p. 4, in Rutherford Collection, Special Collections, Portland State University Library.


Kimberly Jensen, "'Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign": Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory in 1912," Oregon Historical Quarterly, 108:3 (2007), 350-83.

Sophia Wellons, "Oregon's Colored Women's Equal Suffrage League and the 1912 Campaign," accessed online at

"Oregon Woman Suffrage History Month to Month," accessed online at

Portland Bureau of Planning, The History of Portland's African American Community (1805 to the Present), (Portland, 1993).

Federal Manuscript Censuses, Portland, OR, 1900-1940. Accessed via

City Directory listings for Portland, OR, Harry M. Gray, Katherine Gray, Eliza West, Ethel Gray, Edith Gray, accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

Birth, Marriage, and Death entries for the Grays and Eliza West, Ancestry Library Edition.

Find-a-Grave listing for Katherine Gray, Eliza West, including obituary information.

"History Treasured & Sometimes Endangered," with numerous blog entries focused on Katherine Gray, accessed online at

"Oregon Club Women Hold State Convention," The Advocate, Jan. 28, 1930, p. 1.

"Lincoln's Act Praised," Morning Oregonian, Jan. 3, 1911, p. 4.

"Negroes Honor Lincoln: Bethel Church Celebrates Emancipation Proclamation Anniversary Tonight," TheOregonian, Jan. 1, 1916, p. 18.

Untitled, The Sunday Oregonian, Sept. 22, 1912, p. 17.

"Women's Activities," The Oregonian, Nov. 16, 1919, p. 10.

"Negro Women to Aid Campaign," Morning Oregonian, September 8, 1920, p. 14.


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