By Char McCargo Bah
During the Civil War, contrabands, former enslaved people, entered Union controlled areas for protection, food, shelter and clothing. They also needed jobs and education.
There was plenty of work in Alexandria during the Civil War. The contrabands provided labor the Union Army needed. In return, the contrabands were given housing, food and clothing. After they secured those basic needs, the former enslaved people also sought to gain education for themselves and their children.
Fortunately, Alexandria had several schools during the Civil War. Some of those schools were private or controlled by churches like the First African Baptist Church, now Alfred Street Baptist Church, that operated the Alfred Street School House. The Stanton Union School located on Pitt Street was a private school. Reverend Clem Robinson, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, operated the Beulah School. Meanwhile, Sarah A. Gray and a colleague named Jane A. Crouch founded the Saint Rose Institute.
After the Civil War, there was a conscious effort by civil groups to help educate former enslaved people. Gray, for example, founded the Excelsior School in 1867 that was located at Roberts Chapel Church, now Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church. She was the principal and teacher at Excelsior, and she taught classes in spelling, reading, writing, math, geography and needlework.
Gray was born between 1846 and 1847 to a father who was born free and a mother who was emancipated. She obtained her education from the Catholic Oblate School for Colored Girls in Baltimore, Maryland and began teaching in 1861, when she was only about 14 years old. She continued teaching at the school until early 1869, when the Freedmen Bureau in Alexandria offered her a teaching position.
When the City of Alexandria took over the Freedmen Bureau schools in Alexandria and converted them to the Public Negro Schools, Gray became a teacher at Hallowell School for Girls in 1870. One year later, the School Board appointed her the principal of Hallowell, a role she maintained until 1890.
Gray began having problems with her health, and then her father died in 1892. She also filed two lawsuits in Chancery Court. After resolving her legal problems, Gray resumed her position at Hallowell School for a few months, even while her health continued to decline. She died in 1893. Her funeral took place at her former school, Excelsior at Roberts Chapel Church.
Gray came from a wealthy family: Her father was William Gray, a well-known butcher and property owner in Alexandria. He owned 42 acres of farmland that included parts of Alexandria and Arlington. His farm, Pleasant View, was valued at $50,000 at the time of his death in 1891. William gave his wife’s relatives some of his other properties, and he gave his daughter, Sarah, a large estate. He left her two brick dwelling houses on the east side of Columbus Street, between Queen and Princess streets; one house on Prince Street between Peyton and West streets; two houses, the old West property, on Peyton Street; a vacant lot on the corner of Peyton and Prince streets and the sum of $1,000 in United States bonds. The total assessment of William’s estate was more than $100,000.
Gray never married, nor did she have children. Instead, her students were her children. She left her properties to her cousins on her maternal side of the family, the Burkes, Websters and Dundas.
Gray was an exceptional teacher and an excellent principal at Excelsior and Hallowell Schools, and her students did not forget about her. When the City of Alexandria merged Hallowell School for Girls with Snowden School for Boys in 1920, it became Parker-Gray School. Her former students petitioned the authorities to name the school after her.
There are no known pictures of Gray, but her school records and court records have survived. People will always remember her in Alexandria because of Parker-Gray School. Today, Sarah has many relatives among the Burke, Webster and Dundas’ families that are still living in the Washington Metropolitan area.
Char McCargo Bah is a published author, columnist, freelance writer, independent historian, genealogist and a Living Legend of Alexandria. She maintains two blogs, http:// www.theotheralexandria.com and http://www.findingthingsforu.com.