The Gregory family

The Gregory family represents six generations of achievement in the African-American community. I was surprised to learn, as I did the research, that besides the "man from Madagascar" whom they claim as their common ancestor, they were also the descendents of some white person's secret black child. A Supreme Court Judge, a U.S. Congressman, and a Texas state senator had, during the mid-1800s, each harbored a black mistress and child, afforded them shelter, clothing, and education and thus helped this family on its way to prominence. Learning their history, I could not help but wonder where the totality of the African-American community would be if all of us had been given access to education prior to 1865, instead of 1954.

The branch of the Gregory family I was closest to lived in Atlantic City from 1924-1960. T.Montgomery Gregory was superintendent of black schools during that time; the woman who raised me, Peggy Bush, had gotten her job as a second grade teacher at the local elementary school through him. Mr. Gregory's wife, Hugh Ella Hancock, was Peggy's best friend in Atlantic City. Their nephew, Frederick Gregory, was the first black pilot of a space shuttle. Their grandson, Ernest J. Wilson III, served on the National Security Council under President Clinton. His sister Wendy Wilson works for USAID in Senegal; his brother Sule Greg Wilson lives in Arizona and is the author of the book, "The Drummer's Path." To read "Cousin Chico's" chapter on the family's history at Harvard, click here.

T. Montgomery Gregory graduated from Harvard class of 1910. His father, James Monroe, received his masters' degree from Harvard in 1885 - the same year as W.E.B. DuBois. After graduating from Harvard, where he was president of the debating team, T.M. reported did a three-part series on segregation in the nation's passenger rail system ( the "Jim Crow cars") for the NAACP's Crisis magazine.

Before moving to Atlantic City, T.M. had been a professor of drama and literature at Howard University and had helped found the Howard Players there. (An extensive collection of his personal papers and correspondence can be found at Howard's Moorland-Spingarn Library).

The Gregorys had five children: Yvonne, T.M., Jr., Eugene, Hugh, Mignon, and Sheila. I called them my aunts and uncles. Each of them contributed something to the country, their race, and to me. Hugh was one of the Tuskegee Airmen. T.M. Jr. and Eugene were both research scientists. Aunt Yvonne, a gifted poet, co-wrote "We Charge Genocide" - the petition which Paul Robeson presented to the United Nations on behalf of black Americans in l959. Her poems are published in several anthologies, including "The Negro Poet" by Arna Bontemps. Here's one of her poems that always spoke to me:

I forgot to laugh.
And all the things I wanted to say,
Sounded so sorrowfully sad and gray
That I started to cry

Tears flowed in streams
of silver dreams
That tinkled by,
Most soothingly.

And then I laughed.
With the souls of a hundred haunting things
Floating about on wonderful wings
All in bright lines
I had learned to laugh
On a stony path.
A true laugh climbs
from tragedy.

Yvonne's father, T.M. Gregory, Sr., compiled a family history, excerpts from which follow. I especially like the preamble bit:

"A family is built, like a tree, by generations of growth, expansion, flowering, hibernation, and renewal. As we should know and understand the history of our country and of civilization, so too, each generation of family should know and understand the history of its antecedents. Such Family history should be objective, recording its favorable and unfavorable aspects, leaving no skeletons in the closet for future revelations and embarassments. 'Truth crushed to earth will rise again!' "

Therefore, as a supplement to my previous report to you, I am enclosing herewith: a brief summary of the life of my father, James Monroe Gregory, in-so-far as I have been able to determine it from various sources: newspapers, correspondence, official papers, and my own recollections. I have all this data in my files. Unfortunately, my father, and other of his generation left no personal memoirs, nor did he pass on orally to his children an account of his life. I am attempting to correct this oversight with these communications to you. I hope I shall be able to do likewise for the history of your mother's family later.

My father was born in Lexington, Virginia, January 23, 1849. His father was Henry L. Gregory, an industrious freedman and local minister, and his mother was Marie A. Gladman, a member of the well-known Gladman family of Lynchburg, Virginia. His Gladman ancester, through four generations, were natives of the Old Dominion. The Gladman-Price cousins were prominent persons through four generations in Virginia. Family moved to Lynchburg the year of his birth. In 1859 his family, including his brother Claiborne, migrated North, passing through Harpers Ferry the morning after John Brown's raid, in order to find better educational advantages for the children. He attended the common schools of La Porte, Indiana, Chicago, and Niles, Michigan. Rev. William Waring (later of Washington, DC) remembers Jimmy Gregory as "the bright young lad attending school at Niles, the favorite of all the people for miles around."

The family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. James was one of the first colored boys to enter the public schools of Cleveland and to pass through them successfully. He finished the grades at the Brownell Street school. One of his teachers was Miss Laura Spellman, who was to become Mrs. John D. Rockefeller. He was admitted to the high school where Dr. Sterling was principal. Records of the school show he obtained high standing. In 1865 he entered the Preparatory School of Oberlin College, and though he was the only Negro in his class, was elected by his classmates as one of the speakers in the Senior Exhibition.

Oberlin was the center for Negro families who left the south to educate their children. Many children were sent there by their white fathers. One was Hugh Berry Hancock (my wife's father"), whose father, John Hancock, of Austin, Texas, moved his common-law wife and child from Austin at the beginning of the Civil War, and established a home for them in Oberlin. He completed his elementary and high school, and possibly college, education. My father told me he remembered "little Hugh Hancock" in Oberlin. He returned to Austin around 1878, marrying Susan James O'Connor in 1879. She had been sent to a Catholic Convent in Baltimore at age 14 by his white father, Major O'Connor, a confederate. The is the same convent where my grandmother, Margaret Hagan, attended as a girl.

Later Susan James was also sent to Oberlin, where she met her future husband, Hugh Hancock.

John Hancock returned to Austin after the Civil War and was elected to the U.S. Congress, serving many years. Previously, he had been a member of the Texas legislature. The Hancocks were a prominent family in Austin. The Hancock Opera House was named after a cousin, Louis Hancock, and stood perhaps after WWII. While we were in San Juan, Puerto Rico, we met Professor and Mrs. Stevenson (he was on the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico), who had been formerly on faculty of the University of Texas in Austin. We met them through Yvonne Gregory who had been a friend of Hallie Stevenson years ago in New York. They informed us that apparently the last of the Hancocks was a Miss Hancock, an elderly spinster living in Austin, whose poems Hallie had set to music.

Hugh Hancock taught school after his marriage, and later, sponsored by a white friend of his father's, opened a saloon, and then entered politics in Austin. He refused his father's offer to send him to the University of Michigan Law School. When my wife was a teenager, he left the family and moved to Pocatello, Idaho, where he died around the turn of the century.

James Monroe Gregory wrote "Frederick Douglass, The Orator" in 1893. The following is a citation from my father's book: "I first met Mr. Douglass at the home of my father in New Bedford, Mass., in l862; since when I have known him well." This date would make my father thirteen years of age, three years out of Virginia, and presumably in school in Cleveland. Since his father's home at that time was in New Bedford, there must have been a separation between his parents.

My father entered the freshman class at Oberlin in 1868. General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts asked Oberlin, through General Shurtloff, a former Colonel of a Negro regiment in the war and then a professor at Oberlin, to recommend a Negro student for appointment to West Point. James Monroe Gregory thus became the first Negro to be so recommended. The necessary papers were completed by General Butler, but the appointment was disapproved by President Andrew Johnson due to his political troubles with Congress during Reconstruction.

While a student at Oberlin, my father worked for the Freedman's Bureau by teaching school in Lynchburg. While passing through Washington to inquire about his West Point appointment, he was introduced to General Oliver Otis Howard, who was impressed by the young man and took his address. Howard University had been established a year earlier by an act of Congress for the education of Freedmen; General Howard was made President. Shortly thereafter, my father received a letter inviting him to transfer from Oberlin and become the first student of the College department, with the promise of being at once a teacher and a Ph.D. candidate.

The catalog of Howard University for 1968 has only one name in the College Department, that of James Monroe Gregory. Later, Arthur C. O'Hare and Joshua T. Settle joined the class, which was graduated in 1872. My father was valedictorian.

He was immediately appointed instructor in Latin and mathematics at a salary of $1000. After four years he was appointed professor of Latin in the College and became Dean for two years.

Fannie Emma Hagan of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was a student in one of my father's classes. She told me that her teacher wrote personal notes in her notebook. She was 16 years old when she entered Howard; she married my father a year later. They were married in Williamsport on December 29, 1873 by the Rev. William Parot, pastor of the local Episcopalian church. She was born in Frederick, Maryland (in Jerusalem, a section of the town) July 4, 1856. It is remarkable that less than ten years after the end of the Civil War, at a time when the higher education of women in this country had been scarcely seriously considered, her mother, Margaret Hagan, sent her away from home to this newly established institution for her education.

It is appropriate here to give a brief sketch of the life of my mother's Mother, Mrs. Margaret A. Hagan, as far as I have the facts: "she was born and reared in one of Maryland's first and notable families, Judge R.B. Taney, not as a slave, as her mother was purchased by her father previous to her marriage, for the exorbitant price of $1400, her father being a free man." This excerpt is taken from a special commemorative edition of the Williamsport Daily Gazette and Bulletin, June 30, 1890; an entire column being given to the life and career of Mrs. Hagan(we have a copy of the paper). Her mother was Jane, a daughter of Judge Taney. Her father, according to the family lore, was named Po Mahammit, the son of a ruling family in Madagascar who was sent on an educational tour to the United States.

While driving through Maryland he passed through Frederick, and saw a young, comely girl and was so attracted by her that he went to the Taney household, finally paying the price of her release - $1400. He married her, but because of his marriage to an ex-slave, his family refused permission for his return to Madagascar. He settled in Frederick and raised a large family, devoting his time to the breeding of race horses.

Margaret Hagan left Frederick and went to Philadelphia when she was quite young. We know that in Williamsport she first operated a laundry employing 40 girls; later she entered the Philadelphia College of Medical Electricity, finding prejudice there, she went to Dr. Hosford's Sanitarium in Washington, DC. She then opened her own sanitarium in Williamsport where she became one of its leading citizens. In the summer she carried on her treatments in a large cottage at Engles Mere, mountain resort, Pennsylvania. She owned property on East Third St., and West Fourth St. late in life. When she was close to 90, she came to Bordentown, NJ and opened a sanitarium on Farnsworth Ave., and soon had the bankers and other prominent citizens as patients. Always of an independent and domineering character, she embarrassed my parents by attempting to interfere with the administration of their school at Bordentown, and it eventually became necessary to place her in the county Institution for mental patients, where she died.

Back to the life of my father. The family lived in Washington, DC, near Howard University. J.M. Gregory was instrumental in securing the first appropriation for the University($10,000). For years, he was considered the leading exponent of higher education for the Negro. When the Congregational Society of New York desired to have the various phases of the education of the Negro presented at its annual meeting in 1886, it invited Booker T. Washington to speak on Industrial Education; Miss Fannie Jackson on the education of women; and Professor Gregory on Higher Education. He was an intimate and trusted friend of Frederick Douglass - he even wrote his biography, "Frederick Douglass: the Orator". Professor Gregory always stood for the fullest participation of his people in the government of this nation. In 1897, he became Principal of the Industrial Training school in Bordentown, N.J. He served in that position until 1914; he died the following year.

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