In May 1934, Ella O. Gray, almost 21 years
old, moved to Washington,
D.C. for better job opportunities. A Lincoln, Illinois native,
Ella was the oldest of three children of Raymond and Grace Orendoff.
During her childhood her parents separated. While her mother and
her younger brothers, Harry and George remained in Joliet, Illinois, she
and her father returned to Lincoln. There she was raised by
her grandmother, Rosa Bonds, until she finished grade school.
When she returned to live with her mother and brothers in Joliet,
she began high school and her father moved to on to Chicago. It was
during trips to visit their father that Ella and her brothers got their
first taste of “big city” life.
After graduating in 1931 from Joliet Township
High School she worked part-time as an Elevator Operator for six dollars
a week. Joining her mother as a major wage earner, she paid two dollars
a week for insurance for the family, paid the electric bill and was able
to spend the rest on herself.
Opportunities for African-Americans at that
time were scarce. She took a test offered by the National Park Service
to qualify for a higher paying job. While she passed the exam, she
wasn’t offered a position. She then wrote to the Park Service to
find out why she had not been offered a job. They informed her that
positions were not available in the northern central states, as she had
requested, but jobs were available in Washington, D.C. Two weeks
later she received her letter of appointment to report to the Navy
department on Constitution Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C.
When Ella moved to Washington, she stayed with
a friend and two other roommates in a small apartment on the 1400 block
of U St. NW above a jewelry store. As a child, Ella was raised in
the AME church, therefore on her first Sunday in Washington, she visited
and joined the historic Metropolitan AME Church on M Street, NW.
Her first government assignment was with the Agricultural Department as
a full-time Elevator Operator.
She thought Washington was beautiful, however
she found herself very homesick.
She was also surprised by the level of racism
she encountered here. Blacks were not allowed to eat in the downtown
restaurants and neighborhoods and schools were segregated, as well.
While racism and segregation did exist in Illinois, blacks were afforded
a quality education in non-segregated schools and lived next to whites
in the same communities.
Despite segregation, there was a strong sense
of community amongst African- Americans in Washington. Black owned
businesses along U St., NW, Florida Ave., NW and H Street / Benning Road,
NE thrived and served their communities.
One of the highlights of her early life
in DC was the Spring 1939 Marion Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Later that year, while working as an elevator operator at the Bureau of
Engraving, she met
Vernard D. Gray who migrated to Washington from Waverly, Virginia in the
middle thirties. After a courtship lasting a year, they were married
in her apartment at 1424 W Street, NW on November 7, 1940 by Reverend Harry
S. Johnson. Witnessing the ceremony were Ella’s brother and his wife, Harry
and Willie Mae, her best friend, Evelyn Fish and Vernard’s brother, James
and his best friend, Collin Stowes. They settled in Southwest DC
where they had two children – Vernard R. (July 1940) and Louise V. (June
1943) – and both continued to maintain federal government jobs. While
living in Southwest, the family’s activities centered around William Syphax
Elementary School and Rehoboth Baptist Church where Reverend Johnson pastured.
In 1955, the Gray Family purchased their
home, in the Marshall Heights community of Northeast DC for $13,500.
While continuing to work in the federal government, she and her husband
joined Ward Memorial AME Church, then experiencing a total rebuilding under
the leadership of the Reverend J. Haskell Mayo. Both became active
in the civil rights movement and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
In 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was
assassinated, the riots caused some black communities to go up in smoke.
Ella remembers the devastation of the riots in Black neighborhoods and
was disturbed that clean-up and rebuilding efforts were slow or non-existent.
She feels it has been unfortunate for younger generations to have to grow
up impacted by the continuing effects of disorder and destruction.
After Dr. King’s death, Ella and Vernard became active supporters of SCLC’s
Poor People’s Campaign.
Her husband died in March 1970 and she retired
from the Navy Department in May 1971. During her early years
of retirement, she worked as secretary of Ward Church and devoted significant
time to the development of her granddaughters, Jacinta, N’Dieye and Miya.
Today at 86 years of age, Ella remains active in her church and in her
community as a member of Friends of Benning Library. She feels it’s
important to always maintain a positive outlook and to take advantage of
the many opportunities that life has to offer. If she were starting
over, she still feels that Washington, D.C. would be a good place to start.
Today at 86 years of age, Ella remains active
in her church and in her community as a member of Friends of Benning Library.
She feels it's important to always maintain a positive outlook and to take
advantage of the many opportunities that life has to offer.