Ella at Two Years Old
Eighth Grade Graduation
Harry "Buddy" Orendoff
High School Graduation Pic
Negro Graduates,  Joliet Township High School Class of 1931
Grace Orendoff
Raymond Orendoff
Vernard & Louise, April 1946

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 first 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.