Ray, H. Cordelia (c. 1849–1916)

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Ray, H. Cordelia (c. 1849–1916)

African-American poet and scholar. Name variations: Henrietta Cordelia Ray; Cordelia Ray. Born Henrietta Cordelia Ray in New York City around 1849; died in 1916; daughter of Charles B. Ray (a Congregational minister and abolitionist) and Charlotte Augusta (Burroughs) Ray; sister of Charlotte E. Ray (1850–1911); University of the City of New York, master of pedagogy degree, 1891; attended Sauveneur School of Languages; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

Sonnets (1893) and Poems (1910).

Henrietta Cordelia Ray—later known more commonly as Cordelia Ray—was born in New York City around 1849, the second daughter of Charles Ray and Charlotte Burroughs Ray . Her family's ancestors were reputedly among the first New England Africans, who had intermarried with Native Americans and the English of Massachusetts. In addition to his duties as a Congregational minister, Charles Ray was involved with the Underground Railroad (the family's home served as a way station for escaped slaves) and was editor of the abolitionist newspaper Colored American. He made certain that his children were well educated—all received college degrees—including his three daughters, who went on to distinguished careers. Cordelia's older sister Florence Ray became a teacher, and her younger sister Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman attorney in the country. Cordelia attended the University of the City of New York, graduating in 1891; she also studied French, Greek, Latin, and German at the Sauveneur School of Languages.

Initially taken with her sister Florence's profession, Cordelia started her career as a teacher in the girls' department at Colored Grammar School Number One, but the job quickly palled. Relatively unhindered by financial need, she decided instead to become a writer, concentrating her energies on poetry, although she did continue to teach individual students and small groups privately. She and her sister Florence, who had become an invalid, lived together in Woodside, Long Island. Together they produced a 79-page biography of their father's life and work, Sketches of Life of Rev. Charles E. Ray, in 1887.

Poetry was Cordelia's true love, and she published many of her poems in the journal of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Review. At the unveiling ceremony for the Freedman's Monument in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1876, her 81-line poem "Lincoln" was read; Frederick Douglass gave the keynote address. In 1893, she published a collection of her poetry entitled Sonnets; a second volume, Poems, appeared in 1910. Her work was typical of the late 19th century: passionless ruminations on the broad themes of platonic love, morality, Christian faith, and nature. Ray wrote mainly philosophical poems, verses lamenting disappointed love, and tributes to those (like her father) who fought for freedom. Only in the latter was there the remotest indication of racial consciousness or a political agenda. She enjoyed a sheltered life, relatively free from the virulent racism endured by so many other African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction era, and her poetry was a reflection of this experience. That she, with a father who had worked for the Underground Railroad, must have known of the suffering of most black Americans has caused modern-day critics to view her with some contempt. Added to the criticism aimed at her subject matter (or lack thereof) has been criticism of her technically excellent but stiff style, which was common at the time but now seems stilted and awkward. While she was not hugely popular in her own day, she was, nonetheless, a published poet in a time of severely restricted opportunities for African-Americans and for women. Ray's works are included in the prestigious scholarly series Collected Black Women's Poetry, published in 1988, some 72 years after her death.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan