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Abolitionists at Lakewood: Ralph and Emily Grey

Juneteenth is the oldest known holiday to honor the end of slavery in the U.S. Sometimes referred to as America’s “Second Independence Day,” Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to share the news of the Emancipation Proclamation (which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years prior). With the Emancipation Proclamation finally enacted, 250,000 enslaved people were freed in Texas alone.

Though Minnesota’s state constitution prohibited slavery, many residents and politicians in Minnesota and other Northern states did not support emancipation. But though the region was far from being racially equitable, Minnesota and other Northern states also had pockets of strong abolitionist sentiment. From their earliest days, St. Anthony (now Northeast Minneapolis) and Minneapolis had significant anti-slavery contingents.

Lakewood serves as the final resting place for many early Minneapolis abolitionists. Dr. Calvin Goodrich, the first president of the Lakewood Cemetery Association, was a physician who helped many formerly enslaved African Americans escape to reside in Minneapolis. Thomas Hale Williams, the first public librarian in Minneapolis, became a vocal abolitionist after witnessing a pro-slavery mob murder anti-slavery journalist Elijah Lovejoy and destroy his Illinois printing press in 1837. African American pioneers Ralph and Emily O. Goodridge Grey were some of the state’s earliest settlers, and they took an active role in the city’s early abolitionist movement.

The role of African Americans is often left out of America’s frontier history. Today we tell the story of the Greys, their lives in Minneapolis, and their fight to end slavery. The lives of these advocates–now laid to rest at Lakewood–reveal the integral role that African Americans played in Minnesota’s early history.

An 1857 view of St. Anthony (now Northeast Minneapolis) on the banks of the Mississippi River. The Jarrett House, where Ralph Grey ran a barbershop, is on the right. (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

Minnesota’s Frontier

The Western Frontier was never a homogenous environment, with Indigenous, African, English, Spanish, French, Scandinavian and other ethnic groups all represented. African American businessman Ralph Grey moved to St. Anthony in 1855 (three years before Minnesota became a state). Two years later, he was joined by his wife Emily O. Goodridge Grey. At this time there was a small but growing number of African American settlers in the area. Like 94% of Minnesota’s Black population at the time, the Greys were literate and they became highly involved in business, social and political life. The Greys later became the first African American members of the Minnesota Territorial Pioneers (an organization founded in 1897 to honor those who settled in Minnesota before statehood).

Emily O. Goodridge and Ralph Toyer Grey

Ralph T. Grey, born in 1830, came to Minnesota from York, Pennsylvania in 1855 to join his brother, who had already arrived in the territory. Ralph Grey opened a barbershop in the Jarrett House, a prominent hotel on the St. Anthony (now Northeast Minneapolis) riverfront, where he also lived prior to his wife and son’s arrival in 1857. Ralph had some college background, and was widely regarded for his public speaking skills. He was heavily involved in social and church life as a founding member of the Swedenborgian Church and an active member of an African American men’s group.

Emily O. Goodridge Grey was born in 1834 in York, Pennsylvania. Her father, William C. Goodridge, was freed from enslavement in 1821, and became a successful businessperson and an active participant in the Underground Railroad movement. Her family moved westward, with her brothers becoming influential professional photographers in Michigan. In her early 20s, Emily Grey moved farther west than any of her family members, arriving in the new city of St. Anthony to join her husband Ralph in 1857. After arriving in St. Anthony, Mrs. Grey worked as a seamstress, sewing clothing, mats, and rugs. She developed strong connections with other women in her neighborhood, both black and white. Together they shared homemaking skills and developed deep friendships.

A present-day mural of Emily O. Goodridge Grey’s abolitionist father on the side of his namesake “William C. Goodridge Freedom Center” building in York, PA. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Abolitionist Greys and the Eliza Winston Case

Mr. and Mrs. Grey were abolitionists. Many sources, however, note that the complex racial dynamics of the time meant that some African American settlers did not have the luxury of being quite as vocal as their white allies about their abolitionist sentiment. The Greys, like many other entrepreneurs in early St. Anthony and Minneapolis, had to rely on business from pro-slavery clients, including many slave-owning visitors from southern states. But in 1860, the Greys’ abolitionism came to the forefront.

In 1860, a 30-year-old enslaved woman named Eliza Winston was brought to Minnesota by her Mississippian owner Richard Christmas. Slavery was illegal in Minnesota, but the then-recent federal Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling unfortunately stated that an enslaved person could not become free simply by living in or visiting a state in which slavery was illegal. However, many judges in the North ignored this ruling when making legal decisions. While in St. Anthony, Winston met Emily and Ralph Grey. The Greys worked diligently to introduce her to many prominent, vocal abolitionists and community leaders. The stage was set for Winston’s possible freedom.

On August 21, 1860, Emily Grey and two of her friends and allies filed a legal complaint asserting that Winston was being “restrained of her liberty by her master.” When the sheriff went to the home where Winston and the Christmases were residing, he was joined by a crowd of abolitionists. Winston told the sheriff that she desired her freedom. The case went before a judge, who swiftly defied the Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling and granted Winston her freedom.

Local anti-slavery paper the “Minneapolis State Atlas” proudly announces Winston’s freedom. Source: Minneapolis State Atlas via the Minnesota Historical Society

The case was a victory for abolitionists. But many white residents of St. Anthony were outraged with the court’s decision. This case revealed that many Minnesotans–especially those whose economic interests benefited from southern tourism–were willing to accept the racist status quo if it meant financial gain.

The population was divided by the ruling. But the Greys received support from local abolitionists leaders. In her memoir, Emily Grey noted the markedly supportive attitudes of her female neighbors, black and white alike.

The Greys in Later Life

Ralph Grey was selected to read the Emancipation Proclamation at the 1869 “Grand Mass Meeting of Colored People of Minnesota.” Source: Library of Congress via Chronicling America

After the Winston case, the Greys continued to actively promote racial equity and build community among African Americans on the frontier. Ralph Grey was personally selected to read the Emancipation Proclamation at the 1869 “Grand Mass Meeting of Colored People of Minnesota,” which was held in part to honor the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Also speaking at the event was the then-mayor of St. Paul, state Governor Marshall, and the famously nonconformist Minnesota politician and author Ignatius Donnelly. Ralph Grey was a personal friend of African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, hosting him in his home when Douglass visited Minnesota in 1873.

Ralph Grey worked for social change into old age, helping organize the 1902 National Afro-American Press Association’s meeting in the Twin Cities—the largest gathering of African American leaders in the country at the time. He passed away in 1904, and was buried in Lakewood’s Section 12. Alongside Ralph and Emily’s social and political prominence, they raised four children together, including a son who is widely said to be the first African American child born in St. Anthony.

A portion of Ralph T. Grey’s obituary. Source: Library of Congress via Chronicling America

Though the white press did not speak much of the Greys, details of their lives were widely discussed in the Black newspaper “The St. Paul Appeal.” In 1893, the aging Emily Grey attended the Women’s Exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. That year, she also documented her experiences on the frontier in a memoir called “The Black Community in Territorial St. Anthony.” Emily Grey passed away in 1916, long after her husband and children had all passed on (her last child passed away in 1911). She is buried alongside her husband and children in Lakewood’s Section 12.

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