Emily Grey was one of the first African Americans to settle in Old St. Anthony, where she owned and successfully operated her own business as a seamstress. She was active in religious and civic affairs and popular among Black and white residents alike. Best known for initiating the effort to free an enslaved woman named Eliza Winston in 1860, she weathered mob violence for her efforts. She rebuilt her home and business after the incident and resided in Minneapolis for the remainder of her life.
Anticipating trouble on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 21, 1860, a posse of thirty armed men accompanied the Hennepin County sheriff and a Black woman named Emily Grey as they closed in on a cottage on the shore of Lake Harriet (Bde Unma). They were there to deliver a writ of habeas corpus and take Eliza Winston, an enslaved woman, away from her owners so that a judge could consider her case for freedom. Grey, who had helped file the legal complaint that launched the intervention, emerged as an advocate for Winston during the subsequent hearing and its aftermath.
It was not a role that was unknown to Grey. A native of Pennsylvania, she had watched as a child and young adult as her father, William Goodridge, a formerly enslaved man who won his freedom in 1821, helped fugitives to escape their masters. He did so openly from the Goodridge home in York, only seventeen miles from the border of slaveholding Maryland. This violated federal law and placed William under the constant threat of being kidnapped and taken South.
For Emily, therefore, helping to free Eliza Winston in 1860 was far more than an isolated act. It was her birthright, which she defiantly displayed as she rode with the sheriff’s posse through the streets of St. Anthony and Minneapolis, in full view of men who could retaliate against her and her family. When Winston testified in court, Grey stayed with her, even as a pro-slavery mob gathered outside the building. A judge then ruled in Winston’s favor, recognizing her freedom. Afterward, the mob damaged the Greys’ home, but the family recovered.
Grey’s defiance lay just below a refined but friendly demeanor. Rather tall, with a large frame, bluish-grey eyes, and a fair, freckled complexion, Grey moved easily among her Black and white neighbors. She was drawn to St. Anthony’s First Congregational Church, where Reverend Charles Secombe, unique for clergymen of the time, was unrestrained in speaking against the national sin of slavery. Still, during this volatile period, when the sight of African Americans participating in abolitionist gatherings could incite violence even in the North, Grey refrained from joining such activities.
In Ralph Toyer Grey, whom she had married in York 1855, Emily found a kindred spirit. A barber like her father, Grey was well-educated, a student of politics and religion, and an effective public speaker—skills that he used to support the local Black community. He had moved from Pennsylvania to start a barbershop in St. Anthony’s Jarrett House in 1855, and Emily had followed him two years later with their young son, William.
In 1865, Ralph Grey and other Black barbers argued for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would extend suffrage to Black men. The amendment was ratified in 1869, and the Convention of Colored Citizens selected Ralph to read the Emancipation Proclamation at its celebration. The Greys’ circle of friends grew to include such notables as Ida Wells and Frederick Douglass, who stayed with them during his speaking tour of Minnesota.
The names the Greys selected for their three youngest children spoke volumes of their racial pride. Toussaint L’Ouverture Grey, their second son and the first Black child born in St. Anthony, was named after the Black Haitian general who had successfully led a revolt of enslaved people against Napoleon. Harriet Martineau Grey was named after the noted British writer who had advocated for the abolition of slavery and criticized the deplorable state of women’s education. And for their third son, the couple chose the name Ralph Banneker Grey in honor of Benjamin Banneker, the Black surveyor, astronomer and mathematician who had helped to plot out Washington, DC, in the 1790s.
For the remainder of her life, Emily Grey participated in civic functions both in Minnesota and outstate. She led a campaign to secure an exhibit on the achievements of Black women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but organizers declined on account of race. She continued the struggle for recognition and racial dignity until her death in Minneapolis, on January 16, 1916, at age eighty-two.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.