Educator, public servant. Gray was born on August 29, 1883, in Laurens, the middle child and only daughter of William Lafayette Gray, a lawyer, successful merchant-farmer, and state representative from Laurens County, and Sarah Louise Dial, sister of U.S. Senator Nathaniel Barksdale Dial. Her name combining those of her parents, Wil Lou was raised as part of South Carolina’s affluent class. The Grays were influential civic leaders, devoted Methodists, conservative Democrats, and contributors to the industrial development of their town. At the age of nine, Gray suffered the loss of her mother from tuberculosis. She lived with relatives until her father remarried and remained in Laurens until her graduation from high school in 1899.
Gray graduated from Columbia College in 1903 and accepted a teaching position in a one-room, rural schoolhouse in Greenwood County. This experience opened her eyes to the poverty, illiteracy, and public indifference to the problems in her region and inspired Gray to pursue graduate work. At Vanderbilt University in 1905 and Columbia University in 1910, Gray developed a progressive educational philosophy that defined the direction of her career as an educator. At Columbia she studied under William Archibald Dunning and James Harvey Robinson, leading scholars of the day. She was exposed to cutting-edge educational philosophies that promoted the schoolhouse as an agent of democracy, a tenet much evident in Gray’s teaching methods. In 1911 she received a master’s degree in political science, and she forged a relationship with Columbia that led many scholars over the years to visit South Carolina and observe her work with adult learners.
The combination of Gray’s advanced education and her experience as a rural teacher fueled an interest in educational experiments focused on adult learners. Gray’s work exposed her to the harsh living conditions and illiteracy of the families in her region and convinced her to do something about “the ignorance of grown people.” While serving as supervisor of rural schools in Laurens County, she formed her first adult night school in Youngs Township in 1915. From this humble beginning Gray emerged as a leader in adult education. By 1918 she was a field-worker for the South Carolina Illiteracy Commission and from 1921 to 1946 served as the South Carolina Supervisor of Adult Education. While supervisor, Gray experimented with night schools, summertime lay-by schools (four-week sessions held in August), and adult-oriented educational camps called “opportunity schools.” Gray is best known for her opportunity schools, first held in 1921 at the Daughters of the American Revolution camp at Tamassee in Oconee County. Initially open to women only, these summer camps grew to include men and eventually African Americans. Her curriculum included home economics, lessons in etiquette, experiential learning, practical application of skills to everyday experiences, Christianity, and citizenship—legacies of her training and lessons rooted in the values of her class. These summer programs evolved into a year-round boarding school for adults by 1947, when Gray obtained a portion of the Columbia Air Base after World War II. Retiring in 1957, Gray spent the rest of her life volunteering for numerous causes, organizing single-handedly the South Carolina Federation on Aging, a voice for the senior population of the state.
Gray dedicated her life and career to creating opportunities to learn for the disadvantaged people of South Carolina. She transcended race and class barriers by focusing her energy on the eradication of illiteracy through progressive educational programs designed for adults. In a state rife with bigotry and segregation, she “championed equal education for both races without being dismissed as an idle dreamer or revolutionary.” She used her influential family and class ties, her church, and the powerful grassroots network of clubwomen and teachers to turn her pioneering work in the field of adult education into reality. She died on March 10, 1984, in Columbia and was buried in City Cemetery, Laurens. Her portrait hangs in the State House as a testament to her years of service to South Carolina.
Ayres, DaMaris E. Let My People Learn: The Biography of Dr. Wil Lou Gray. Greenwood, S.C.: Attic Press, 1988.
Gray, William S., Wil Lou Gray, and J. W. Tilton. The Opportunity Schools of South Carolina, An Experimental Study. New York: American Association for Adult Education, 1932.
Gray, Wil Lou. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Gray, Wil Lou, and Marguerite Tolbert. A Brief Manual for Adult Teachers in South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: State Department of Education, 1944.
Montgomery, Mabel. South Carolina’s Wil Lou Gray. Columbia, S.C.: Vogue, 1963.
Motley, Mary Mac. “The Making of a Southern Progressive: South Carolina’s Wil Lou Gray, 1883–1920.” Master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 1997.