William Henry Grey was born December 22, 1829 in Washington, D.C. His mother was Elizabeth Grey, who was a slave until being granted her freedom by Henry Alexander Wise. Wise was a U.S. Congressman from Virginia and there were rumors that William was his son. Although Wise never officially recognized him, he followed the Senator everywhere. Elizabeth was also the only slave ever to be granted her freedom by Wise, so William was born free. Young William would be by Henry Wise when he was on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a young boy, he attended the private school of John F. Cook. Later Henry Wise would serve as a Confederate General and become famous as the man who executed John Brown. In recent years with advancements in DNA, it has been determined that Henry Wise was indeed the father of William Henry Grey. In fact the two sides of the family have actually met and in 2015 were welcomed to the Governor’s mansion in Richmond. (Smith, Starita. “A Trip to Richmond”)
Elizabeth Grey became involved with someone she met in Washington, had several more children, and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Soon after the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio were his mother passed away from cholera in 1852. Grey moved to St. Louis, Missouri and worked as a cook on steamboats going up and down the Mississippi River. In 1854, he married Henrietta Winslow. They would have nine children together. Their names were Nancy, Nathaniel, William, Edward, Oliver, Ulysses, Charles, Susan and Anna. In addition to working on the river, he also served as a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although William registered for the draft, he never served in the Civil War. When the war ended, his family moved further south to the city of Helena, Arkansas. There Willam founded a grocery store and bakery with his partners Oliver Winslow and H.B. Robinson.
In 1867, William Henry Grey was elected as one of four Phillips County delegates to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868. Altogether, there were eight African American delegates at that convention and they supported the Republican platform promoting the rights of freedmen in the state. He served on several important committees at the convention and offered one resolution establishing federal aid for the poor and allowing freedmen to homestead government land. Also, Grey took to the floor twenty five times to argue measures proposed by the pro-Confederate Democrats against freedmen.
Grey served as a state legislator in both 1869 and 1872. In 1870, he was appointed clerk of the First Circuit Clerk an Ex-Offico Recorder of Deeds. In 1872 he became the first African American to address a national presidential nominating convention, seconding the nomination of President Ulysses S. Grant.
From 1872 to 1874, William Grey was Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands. While on assignment in New York in 1873 to supervise arrangements for Arkansas’s exhibit at the World Exposition in the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna, he suffered a stroke. This forced him to return to Little Rock for medical care. Grey then moved back to Helena. Although not well, he served as clerk in the Phillips County probate and county courts. In September 1878, William suffered another stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He passed away on November 8, 1888. William Henry Grey is buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Helena, Arkansas.
Smith, Starita. “A Trip to Richmond”. http://www.thefeministwire.com
Military and U.S. Census Records from Ancestry.com
U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records: 1863-1865
William H. Grey – Encyclopedia of Arkansas. www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
William H. Grey – Arkansas Black Lawyers. http://www.arkansasblacklawyers.uark.edu
Publications of the Arkansas Historical Association. genealogy trails.com
The Constitution of 1868 | Civil War Helena. civilwarhelena.com
Debates and Proceedings of the Convention which assembled at Little Rock, page 92.