January 22, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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The Black and White of Gray’s World 

A voice of change in local politics, City Council member Kimberly Gray is helping bridge our cultural divide. 

click to enlarge Gray understands that Richmond still has distinctly white and black neighborhoods, as it did when she was a child. As the 2nd District School Board member she represented Fox Elementary, a largely white school in an affluent neighborhood, as well as Carver Elementary, a largely black school that served students from the housing projects. Since 2017, she has represented the 2nd District on City Council.

Scott Elmquist

Gray understands that Richmond still has distinctly white and black neighborhoods, as it did when she was a child. As the 2nd District School Board member she represented Fox Elementary, a largely white school in an affluent neighborhood, as well as Carver Elementary, a largely black school that served students from the housing projects. Since 2017, she has represented the 2nd District on City Council.

Standing on a porch in the Maymont neighborhood, she looked up nervously at her big brother, who was four-and-a-half. They held tightly to each other's hands, the way children do when really scared. They stared down at their feet, the way children do when they're nervous and don't know what else to do. She wanted to cry but squeezed her eyes shut. 

The children's father stepped up and knocked again on the storm door, using his keys this time to tap a distinctive rhythm before stepping away. Finally, the door opened and a short, stout black woman with light skin stared down at them, silent at first. Then she spoke the words that changed their lives.

 "[She said] 'I was worried that I might look at you and hate you. But all I see right now are two little angels sent to me by God for me to love,'" recalls the little boy today with crystalline clarity. "Then she knelt down, hugged us and brought us inside." 

Their father followed them into their new home. 

The lady was Gertie Elam Gray, the wife of their father, Edward Earl Gray, a black man known as Earl. The children — Jeffrey and Kimberly — were the products of an affair Earl had been having for years with a white woman in Fulton Hill.

The children's maternal great-grandmother had contacted Gertie and told her that something needed to be done. The kids weren't safe because their mother couldn't keep them safe in the segregated and severely racist neighborhood where she lived. So Gertie sent Earl to pick them up.

Race relations in the city at the time, the early 1970s, were marked by the constant threat of violence simmering just below the surface. White anger was visible at many demonstrations against the busing orders of U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., then the most hated man in Richmond, who ruled that schools in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield would be merged and students would be bused to achieve desegregation.

Segregationists threatened his family, spat in his face and shot his dog to death after tying its legs. Protesters held weekly parades outside his home. A guest cottage on his property, where his mother-in-law lived, was burned to the ground. Oliver W. Hill Sr., one of the lawyers who helped bring the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to the U.S. Supreme Court, had a cross burned in his yard. 

Within this polarized world, the little girl bonded quickly with Gertie, though she was afraid to go to sleep. She ended up sleeping next to Gertie with her fingers twisted around the woman's hair and a little leg flopped across her stomach because she was so worried someone would try to steal her away in the night. Her brother was traumatized as well, but sleep came easier for him since he didn't have to worry so much about keeping his little sister safe.

Somehow, Gertie and Earl survived the trauma of how they came to be a family of four and not only dearly loved these children, but remained married to one another until their deaths. 

"Gertie absolutely saved our lives," says City Council member Kimberly B. Gray, the little girl who stood on the porch 45 years ago trying not to cry and desperately squeezing her big brother's hand. 

click to enlarge Mayor Levar Stoney cuts the ceremonial ribbon Sept. 27 to reopen Monroe Park after a 22-month restoration. Among other dignitaries he is flanked by Michael Rao, VCU president, Alice McGuire Massie of the Monroe Park Conservancy and Kim Gray. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Levar Stoney cuts the ceremonial ribbon Sept. 27 to reopen Monroe Park after a 22-month restoration. Among other dignitaries he is flanked by Michael Rao, VCU president, Alice McGuire Massie of the Monroe Park Conservancy and Kim Gray.

Elected to serve on the Richmond School Board in 2008, Gray, a Richmond native and a divorced mother of seven children, two by adoption, wasn't expected to win. 

Her 2008 victory first surprised — then stunned — political insiders, not only because she upset the incumbent, widely considered a shoo-in for the School Board chairmanship, but because she outpolled newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama, 6,027 to 5,755 in the 2nd District. The win also made her the first female of color and the first African-American elected to represent the district.

Yet, if news reporters and pundits were surprised by her victory, Gray's family and close friends were not.

"Kim grew up knowing the importance of knocking on doors and conquering her fears," recalls Jeffrey Gray, her big brother. "She tended to be sort of shy and soft when we were students at John B. Cary. She toughened up when we got into middle and high schools." 

He explains that she figured out that the best way to deal with a bully was never to let a bully get away with it.

"We had to get tough, she had to get tough — it was the times."

It's an understatement to note that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a tumultuous time. As a nation, we put a man on the moon, experienced Woodstock, watched soldiers slog through jungles in Vietnam on the nightly news and saw far too many come home in body bags and coffins. And in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of Massive Resistance, the '70s ushered in an era of anti-busing hysteria and heightened racial tension.

Driving through her old neighborhood, Kim Gray, 48, reflects on her journey from that life-changing day at 1801 Greenville Ave. to City Council chambers in Richmond City Hall. She remembers what it was like to be a biracial child in Richmond during that time. She felt blessed to grow up in the Maymont area, "such a nice African-American middle-class neighborhood." 

"It was like growing up in a small town," she explains. "It was a sheltered and idyllic childhood in so many respects. Gertie was a master gardener and would share the vegetables she grew. Everyone knew each other and everyone took care of one another. If you needed something sewed, you knew whose house to go to. If you needed something fixed, you knew whose house to go to. If you or a child was sick, if you were having a baby, you knew where to find help. You knew." 

Driving past the street where her father grew up (Kemper) and past the corner where her grandfather ran a blacksmith shop for years, originally in Jackson Ward and later at Allen Avenue and Main Street, she recalls family stories about when she first moved from Fulton Hill, a largely white neighborhood, to the Maymont area, a largely black neighborhood. 

The adults in her family "used to laugh at us good-naturedly because we were terrified to look out the window and see so many black people. We were seriously afraid. It was really hard to get us to go outside."  

Laughing, she says, "You gotta know our family helped us get over that real fast."  But then she adds in a serious tone, "You see, even at that young age, we had already been trained to fear dark-skinned people." 

"Despite it all, Gertie and Earl Gray, as we called them, made sure we were raised right and got proper home training," she says. They were good, hard-working role models. Gertie worked as a domestic and in a doctor's office. Earl was a porter at the Richmond Airport. The family's church was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and the children learned and lived their Catholic faith.

Earl Gray was a hard-working man by all accounts, as well as a talented musician on the piano and drums. He had started the Earl Gray Orchestra which provided musical background for various legendary performers who played at the Hippodrome Theater at 528 N. Second St. in Jackson Ward. The Hippodrome was part of the Chitlin' Circuit, a group of venues throughout the South that supported black performers during the days of segregation. Because black performers could rarely afford to travel with their own orchestras, they would hire local musicians to provide backup. In its heyday, Earl Gray's group accompanied performers such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, James Brown, Ida Cox and Ella Fitzgerald. 

The children credit Gertie with teaching them about forgiveness and faith. And they credit their father with instilling a love of politics and the necessity to give back to the community. One of Jeff's earliest memories is watching the news and political talk shows with his father. He recalls being amazed at how his dad would carry on at the television the way some people do when watching sports.

"He made us watch," he says. "He called it 'history happening in front of our faces.'"

Jeff will never forget at age 5 seeing how visibly upset his father became while watching the news of President Richard Nixon's resignation.

click to enlarge Councilwomen Kim Gray and Kristen Nye Larson at Carver Elementary School stand in front of a life-sized cutout of School Superintendent Jason Kamras and Mayor Levar Stoney. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilwomen Kim Gray and Kristen Nye Larson at Carver Elementary School stand in front of a life-sized cutout of School Superintendent Jason Kamras and Mayor Levar Stoney.

"You see, my dad was a Republican, an active Republican. But he was an old-school Republican, definitely not like the ones we have today."  Virginia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, A. Linwood Holton, appointed Edward Earl Gray to serve on the State Welfare Commission.

Kim Gray says some of her earliest and happiest memories were "the daily outings with my dad in the community—the barbershops, funeral homes visiting the elderly [...] sitting in dimly lit bars and smoke-filled rooms. I would sit at the bar, he would order me a Cherry Coke with extra syrup and I would be real quiet and take in the hearty political debates. I loved listening to them." 

"I also loved campaigning and using the microphone, asking people to vote for my daddy, Earl Gray [for City Council]."  She says that the most valuable lesson she learned from her father was "that it's much better to make people fall in love rather than trying to make them fall into line." 

Election records show their father was active in the Crusade for Voters and ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1971, and the family maintains that he ran unsuccessfully for City Council six years later. Donald Gaines, the assistant voter registrar for the city, explains that due to an order from U.S. Department of Justice there were no City Council elections in the city from 1972 to 1976. The office only recorded the winners of races immediately following release from the order, he says.

Gray and her brother recall that one night close to the City Council campaign, a group of white men attacked and severely beat their father. The beating left him bloody with his teeth knocked out, a broken jaw, several broken bones and a concussion. Earl Gray said at the time that he was told he needed to "stop running with that white woman." No one could ever identify the attackers but the family believes it was the Ku Klux Klan. 

While the white folks were singing "Dixie," and the black folks were singing "We Shall Overcome," Kim recalls that the words to the Supremes' hit song "Love Child" kept playing in her head.

She remembers blaming herself then and again years later when her brother, Jeff, was also attacked and beaten. She also remembers vowing that she would make Richmond a better place for all and that, just as she squeezed her eyes shut on that porch long ago, she could not and would not let anybody see her cry.

Gray has been an elected official in Richmond for the past decade. Look her up on the internet. Talk to folks who pay attention to city politics. You'll discover that many Richmonders rely on her to be a voice of conscience and common sense. You'll also see that some others see her as an annoying antagonist.

Some want her to run for mayor. Others want to run her out of town.

Roxie Raines Allison, a former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and one of Gray's constituents today, sees a lot of Earl Gray in his daughter. She remembers Earl as "a big man who never minced words … who stepped on more than a few toes, but always worked harder than he expected anyone else to work." She says that Kim Gray is similarly "fearless" and loyal.

"She does her homework and is totally comfortable in both the black and white worlds, just like President Barack Obama," she says. And like Obama, Gray had to fight societal forces that tried to classify her based on skin color instead of character.

Talk to small business owners on Broad Street who lost significant revenue because the Pulse construction took much longer than anticipated, and they will tell you how Gray fought for — and won — compensation for them. Ask Richmond's first responders who saw the first stage of pay equalization thanks to Gray's ability to work with her colleagues on City Council. Or meet impoverished families of children who have died unexpectedly and you'll learn how, in the midst of their grief, Gray helped them find money for a decent dress or suit in which to bury their child.

Some local politicos see her determination as recalcitrance and a refusal to go along to get along. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Dominion Energy Chief Executive Thomas Farrell have been publicly frustrated by her successful insistence on an independent commission to evaluate their $1.4 billion proposed Navy Hill project to build a new arena and dedicate the taxes from an 80-block area surrounding it to fund the plan.

Gray believes that transparency and accountability are fundamental to any sustained and substantive progress our city makes, she says, and that residents deserve representatives who will look at Richmond's $720 million budget and ask the hard questions.

click to enlarge Kim Gray speaks to constituents of the 8th District on Dec 13 at the Satellite Lounge. Councilwoman Reva Trammel asked Gray to share information on the commission she was proposing to help analyze the proposed $1.4 billion Coliseum replacement. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kim Gray speaks to constituents of the 8th District on Dec 13 at the Satellite Lounge. Councilwoman Reva Trammel asked Gray to share information on the commission she was proposing to help analyze the proposed $1.4 billion Coliseum replacement.

"Frankly, before we undertake some blue-sky, billion-dollar-plus project, we must fix our schools, the potholes, equalize our salaries for first responders, fix our basic infrastructure, work on alternative transportation," she says.

And while she appreciates all the talk about running for mayor, Gray insists that she remains focused on the job that she has.

"I was elected to serve on City Council and that is my focus," she says, adding that the job requires strict "attention to basics and [to] watch out for the taxpayers."  

She bristles at the suggestion that those who think her recent call to create an independent panel to evaluate the $1.4 billion coliseum proposal is an effort to obstruct their plan. "Before we mortgage the future of our city," Gray says, "we need to ask the hard questions"

Viola O. Baskerville, a lawyer and longtime politician who once served on City Council, as well as a former General Assembly delegate who last served as secretary of administration in Gov. Tim Kaine's Cabinet, agrees. 

"Her recent call for a commission to review the $1.4 billion proposal, while not popular in some circles, was the obvious result of listening to constituents," she says. "Kim's own personal story makes her uniquely situated to bridge Richmond's changing diverse demographics." 

Virginia Delegate Jeffrey Bourne, who served on the Richmond School Board with her, recalls Gray's unwavering commitment to improving the lives of children in Richmond.

 "She has a unique leadership ability to advocate for what's right, not what's easy," he says. "Her ability to rise above seemingly insurmountable opposition and build a coalition is impressive."

Gray understands that Richmond still has distinctly white and black neighborhoods, as it did when she was a child. As the 2nd District School Board member, she represented Fox Elementary, a largely white school in an affluent neighborhood, as well as Carver Elementary, a largely black school that serves students from the housing projects, and various iterations of the Alternative School, a mostly black school for students with discipline and attendance issues. She also represented Richmond on the board of Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, which sits in her district, and draws a mostly white population of students from 12 surrounding cities and counties.

Alongside former School Board colleague and current City Council member Kristen Larsen of the 4th District, Gray and the board developed a plan to fix school infrastructure issues and finally finish the required Americans with Disabilities Act improvements to Richmond school buildings.

The plan remains unfunded and Gray remains unbowed. She knows that, regardless of color, "all families want options for their children."

In many respects, Gray's story is also Richmond's story, the struggle to reconcile past and present while moving into the future. It is an ongoing struggle for both resident and city, using the past as a crucible to forge an identity that will heal personal pain and bind up the city and the nation's ancient, still festering racial wounds. 

All this looking back at her life had Gray thinking about her own birth mother.

"I appreciate and honor the courage it took for her to allow my father and Gertie to raise us," she says. "It was a tough decision for her. [And] I am happy to note that she has become a terrific grandmother to my children."

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