Edith Gray (Williams) (Johnston)


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Edith Gray (Williams) (Johnston), 1891-1944


By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, SUNY Binghamton

Edith Gray was born about 1891 in Ulster County, NY to Harry M. Gray and Katherine Gray. Her family moved to Portland, OR in 1895 or 1896. Edith attended school until at least 1906 and in 1909 and 1910 she was recorded as working as a hairdresser from her family's home at 840 Union Ave. In 1913, as she registered to vote, Edith Gray noted her occupation as maid. Her father was a miner and her mother worked as a laundress. By the 1910s her father worked as a janitor and a watchman. Harry died in early 1920 and the family largely dispersed about that date.

There is no surviving marriage record, but Edith Gray and Charles J. Williams married in 1916 or 1917. The January 1917 account of the formation of the Oregon Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (OFCWC) indicates that Edith Williams sat on the committee on constitution and programming. Portland city directories note the couple residing together in 1917 and 1920. Edith Williams is noted in a November 1919 news account as a member of the Lucy Thurman W.C.T.U. with responsibility for work related to peace and mercy. Cornerstones of Community notes the couple as married in the period 1924-1930 and residing at 2428 SW 1st Ave. The 1930 census records Charles and Edith each as married but they were boarding in different households. Edith G. Williams was recorded as a matron in a rest room, the same occupation that her mother, Katherine Gray, reported at this date.

Edith Gray's first evident political activity came in early 1912, at the start of Oregon's fourth suffrage campaign 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 support 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 suffrage campaign that year. Edith's mother, Katherine, became the League's president and Edith served as treasurer. 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 the November election.

Edith Gray did extensive community work beyond her involvement in woman suffrage for almost two decades. In September 1912 the Woman's Home and Foreign Missionary Society held a fundraising event at the First AME Zion church in Portland and Edith Gray presided at one session of the event. In 1914 she served as corresponding secretary 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). In an account of the of CWC's 1930 annual meeting, we learn that Edith Williams presided over the Thursday evening session of the conference.

The marital separation between Edith and Charles Williams evident in 1930 seems to have led to divorce because in 1932 Edith married Rev. Henry Leo Johnston(e) in the home of her mother, Mrs. Katherine Gray.

The couple lived in Seattle, in the parsonage of the First A.M.E. Zion church in 1932, though Rev. Johnston was no longer employed by 1940 and the couple may have moved. The Seattle census in 1940 recorded Edith as a seamstress in a WPA sewing room while her Jamaican-born husband, Henry Johnston, had no listed occupation. The 1930 Seattle census had listed Johnston as single and as an A.M.E. Zion minister.

Edith Gray Johnston passed away on March 19, 1944, survived by her husband, the Rev. H.L. Johnston and her mother, Mrs. Catharine Gray.


Edith 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 http://centuryofaction.org/index.php/main_site/document_project/oregons_colored_womens_equal_suffrage_league_and_the_1912_campaign

"Oregon Woman Suffrage History Month to Month," accessed online at http://centuryofaction.org/index.php/main_site/This_month

"History Treasured & Sometimes Endangered," with numerous blog entries focused on Katherine Gray, accessed online at http://historicpreservationclub.blogspot.com/2014/06/mrs-katherine-gray-founder-of-harriet.html.

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; Seattle, 1940. Accessed via HeritageQuest.com.

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

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

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

"Colored Women Form Federation of Clubs," Snday Oregonian, Jan. 21, 1917, section 3, p. 12.

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

"Minister Weds," The Advocate, March 26, 1932, p. 3.

Untitled in "News Briefs," The Advocate, Oct. 29, 1932, p. 1.

Darrell Millner, Carl Abbott, and Cathy Galbraith, Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland's African American History (1995), accessible online at https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1059&context=black_studies_fac

Death record for Edith Gray, accessed online at FamilySearch, United States, GenealogyBank Historical Newspaper Obituaries, 1815-2011


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