Ray, Charles B.

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Charles B. Ray

Abolitionist, editor

Charles B. Ray was born a free man but devoted most of his life to the antislavery movement and to the advancement of the African American race. During the nineteenth century, Ray endeavored to uplift his race by working as an integrationist at Wesleyan University, an abolitionist, an editor, and a preacher.

Ray was born December 25, 1807 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to Joseph Aspinwall Ray, a mail carrier, and Annis Harrington, a well read and religious woman. Ray claimed a mixed ancestry of African, English, and Native Indian. Ray was educated in Falmouth before he relocated to Westerly, Rhode Island, where he worked on his grandfather's farm. He later settled on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he mastered the boot making trade at Vineyard Haven and began his studies at Wesleyan Seminary in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.


Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on December 25
Enters Wesleyan University as an aspiring minister
Opens boot repair shop in New York
Joins the American Anti-Slavery Society
Marries Henrietta Regulus
Works as a traveling journalist and subscriptions promoter for The Colored American
Becomes owner and editor of The Colored American
Marries Charlotte Augusta Burroughs
Suspends publication of The Colored American
Serves as corresponding secretary for the Committee on Vigilance; helps to organize the Negro National Convention held in Buffalo, New York
Installed as pastor of Bethesda Congregational Church in New York
Co-founds Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children with Charles L. Reason
Serves as executive member of the New York State Vigilance Committee
Serves as president of the Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children; calls for a thorough review of city-run schools in New York
Dies in New York on August 15

In September 1832, at the age of twenty-five, Ray enrolled as the first black student at Wesleyan University as an aspiring minister. Upon his enrollment, Ray met resistance from members of the student body who did not want black students attending an all white university. Because of the overwhelming negative reaction of students towards Ray's enrollment, the trustees of the university resolved that Wesleyan University would only accept white male students and consequently revoked Ray's admission. Three years later, in 1835, Wesleyan reversed its decision, allowing students of all races to enroll. The university later established the Charles B. Ray Scholarship to assist students of color with the cost of tuition and later opened the scholarship to all students in need of financial assistance.

Leaving the university, Ray traveled to New York where he continued to work in his trade as a boot maker. While there, he became acquainted with Presbyterian pastor and abolitionist Theodore S. Wright. Ray opened a shoe making and repair shop in Lower Manhattan, close to the Wright residence, and the business began to flourish. In need of assistance for his thriving shop, Ray hired Samuel Cornish who later became a business partner.

Joins Anti-Slavery Movement

Influenced by Wright, Ray became involved with the anti-slavery movement in 1833. Around this time, Ray began working with the Underground Railroad. As a conductor, Ray guided slaves to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, a major stop on the Underground Railroad. At the height of his involvement with the antislavery movement, on separate occasions Ray sheltered fourteen fugitive slaves within his home and led an entire family to freedom, including a grandmother and toddler. By this time, the Underground Railroad was using new methods of transporting slaves. Steamboats, cargo-sloops, and canal boats (a majority operated by black men), were now being used as vessels by which escaped slaves gained their freedom.

In the early 1840s Ray become involved with the Vigilance Committee of the City of New York, which brought him in close company with Gerrit Smith who would later become president of the organization. Ray became a member of the executive board. During his years in the antislavery movement, Ray worked with many prominent abolitionists, including Reverend Theodore Wright, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass and Samuel Cornish. Cornish along with John D. Russwurm began the Freedman's Journal, the nation's first African American newspaper. Although Ray was active in the antislavery movement prior to the involvement of Garnet and Douglass, he is often overlooked. At the time when Garnet joined the antislavery movement, Ray had been an active member for several years. Ray began his career as an abolitionist in 1833, five years before Douglass escaped from slavery.

Ray held prominent positions within antislavery organizations. He was a secretary with the Negroes of New York, a group that advocated the non-violent approach to the abolition of slavery. He was also instrumental in organizing the 1840 Negro National Convention in Buffalo, New York.

Works for The Colored American

In 1837, Ray joined The Colored American as a traveling reporter. Ray delivered speeches and sermons to audiences as a means of promoting his subscriptions to the publication. In his efforts to bring attention to the institution of slavery, Ray became a regular contributor to The Colored American and later he served as its co-editor. The Colored American was then the nation's second-oldest African American newspaper: it began as The Weekly Advocate under the editorship of Reverend Samuel Cornish. Although Fredrick Douglass's North Star is widely credited as the most influential newspaper of its time, The Colored American, first published in February 1837 under the name The Weekly Advocate antedated the North Star by ten years and was funded by black leaders of New York. The North Star began publication in 1847 and was funded by white supporters.

As co-editor Ray wrote and edited articles on various subjects, including the importance of freedom and education, and the way in which freed slaves, particularly women, should present themselves to the public. In 1839, Cornish resigned as editor of The Colored American, which led Ray to become the owner and chief editor. By this time The Colored American was in financial straits. Ray wrote most of the articles himself as he continued to support the abolitionist cause. Following a long battle to keep the paper running, Ray finally suspended publication in April 1842.

Following the closing of The Colored American, Ray continued to support the antislavery cause. He worked to ensure that black children received a quality education. His dedication to and firm belief in education led in 1847 to his partnering with Charles L. Reason, an African American mathematician, to co-found the Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children, an organization that oversaw black schools in New York City. President of the organization from 1861 to 1865, Ray was instrumental in founding two elementary schools, fighting for the desegregation of all white schools, and lobbying for adequate support for all black schools. While president of the organization, Ray was ordained as a pastor of New York's Bethesda Congregational Church, a position he held until his death. Ray died in New York on August 15, 1886, at the age of 79.

Ray's children followed their father's path. Henrietta Cordelia Ray, named in honor of Ray's first wife Henrietta Green Regulus, spoke four languages fluently: French, German, Greek, and Latin. She was a poet whose eighty-line ode, entitled "Lincoln," was read by William E. Matthews at the unveiling of the Freedman's Monument where Fredrick Douglass delivered the keynote address. Florence Ray, the second of three girls, and daughter of Ray's second wife Charlotte Augusta Burroughs, was college educated and trained as a teacher. Charlotte Ray, the youngest of the girls and also a daughter of Ray's second wife, was the first black woman to graduate from a law school in the United States, the first woman to graduate Howard University's School of Law in 1872, the first black woman to pass the bar exam, and the first woman to practice law in Washington, D.C. In 1887 Charlotte and Florence coauthored a biography of their father, Sketches of the Life of Reverend Charles B. Ray.



Mabee, Carleton. Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists from 1830 through the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Swift, David. "Charles Bennett Ray." In American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Villard, Harold G. "Charles Bennett Ray." In Dictionary of American Biography. Ed. Dumas Malone. New York: Scribner's, 1963.


Work, M. N. "The Life of Charles B. Ray." Journal of Negro History 4 (October 1919): 361-71.


"Beginnings: Charles B. Ray to Victor L. Butterfield." http://www.wesleyan.edu/admission/diversity/beginnings.html (Accessed 11 February 2006).

Davis, Ronald, Steve, et al. "The Black Press in Antebellum America." Slavery in Americahttp://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_press.htm (Accessed 11 February 2006).

Williams, Scott, et al. Mathematicians of the African Diaspora. 1 July 2001. http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/special/reason_charles_l.html (Accessed 11 February 2006).

                                    Felicia A. Chenier