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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Now, in 1949, after having lived in Louisiana and Florida, the family moves to Philadelphia. You go from the South to the North. Do you remember that as a big change?
GRAY: Oh, absolutely. It was a big change. I mean, I grew up in the South, a segregated South, American apartheid, where the concept of going to a restaurant, going into a hotel, riding anywhere on a public accommodation was just something that you never thought about. I mean, you just didn't do it. You rode in the back of the bus, and when the white folks got on, you got up and moved to the back, and if enough of them got on, you got up and gave them your seat. I remember that as a kid. I also remember that you didn't go to restaurants. I remember drinking at the colored water fountain and thinking like, you know, "Why am I drinking here? The water looks the same here as it does over there." That was a major change, going from the deep South to Philadelphia. Now it wasn't that much for my parents, because my father was from Philadelphia, and my mother had lived in Philadelphia for a while, while my father was working on his Ph.D. and she was getting her master's degree. It was a big change, though, for me, and it was a big change for my sister. Now I can ride anywhere I want on the public conveyances, the trolley cars, I can go into just about any restaurant I wanted to, as long as I had the money. Yeah. I mean, it was a big change.
BOND: And was it an exciting change? I mean, you said, "This is great, the old life is bad, this is good." Was it that much evident to you?
GRAY: It was exciting for a lot of reasons. I was moving away from the South; I was in a big city, you know. Cities are full of energy, full of things to do, places to go and things to see. And so, just moving from Tallahassee, Florida, Baton Rogue, Louisiana, to this great big city with skyscrapers, with trolley cars, with busses, with theaters, and not just one, but I mean, a bunch you could choose from. That was fascinating. I mean, that was really exciting. So I was excited about just going to a city. That was number one excitement. Number two, I was also excited about the new opportunities that I had, as a person, that I did not have in the South because I was black.
BOND: Now, you go to Simon Gratz High School, in Philly, and I'm guessing it was integrated, black and white kids there.
BOND: It's almost all black now.
GRAY: It was – Simon Gratz High School was predominantly black, even when I went there, I would probably say somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-plus percent. The middle school – they called it junior high school that I went to – was predominantly white. It was J. Cooke. And then the elementary school that I went to was predominantly black. So I went to an elementary school that was predominantly black. It was a neighborhood school, three blocks from my house. And of course in the 1950s, you've got to remember there was segregation in the North. It was called geographic segregation, where black folks all lived in the ghetto, as it was called, you know – the neighborhood. It didn't matter about your income. So it was later that I began to understand these differences and say, "Hey, some of the things that we left in the South exist here." And, in fact, in the South, you didn't have the spatial segregation. In fact, in the South, you often have white folk and black folk living side by side. It's just the black folk couldn't vote, they couldn't hold certain jobs. Whereas in the North, you had spatial segregation. The black folks lived in North Philly, and the white folks lived in the East Mount Airy area, Germantown, and black folks couldn't buy a house there. So, I became aware of that, and by the time I went to high school, it was predominantly a black high school.
BOND: Now in the earlier school where it's predominantly white, was this a new experience, or a shocking experience? How'd that – going to school with white kids – what was that?
GRAY: Well, it was different. I had never done it before in my life, and so, here I am in the seventh grade, and for the first time, I'm sitting in a room filled primarily with white students, and white teachers. It was different. I got to know my white colleagues, the various cultures that they came from, you know, the Italians, the Jewish students, the Polish students, and it was a learning experience, and I think I adapted well. I did all right.