Wil Lou Gray and the Politics of Progress in South Carolina

Mary Macdonald Ogden, University of South Carolina


Through an analysis of state Superintendent of Educations records, regional newspapers, and the Wil Lou Gray manuscript collection, this work examines the first fifty years of the life and work of South Carolinian Dr. Wil Lou Gray (1883-1935). Spurred by the southern educational reform crusade, advanced education and the high levels of illiteracy in South Carolina, Gray used the emergent field of adult education before and specifically after World War I as a portal to carry out a sustained and shrewd attack against the racism, illiteracy, sexism and political lethargy commonplace in South Carolina. From her position as State Superintendent of Adult Schools (1919) and through opportunity schools, adult night schools, pilgrimages and media campaigns to 1935, Gray transformed the campaign to eradicate illiteracy in South Carolina from a plan of eradication to a program of adult education. Her work reveals the significant role white women played in the Long Civil Rights Movement and demonstrates that she successfully secured small but meaningful advances in the face harsh economic conditions, endemic white supremacy and race violence for black and white adults in South Carolina. Gray's methods and politics reveal a nuanced picture of the implementation and impact of southern educational reform in the first decades of the twentieth-century.