ALTON — After 26 years, James Gray is retiring as president of the Alton branch of the National Association For The Advancement of Colored People.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be mayor of a city that has a branch of the NAACP, a great organization that was founded in 1909 here in my city,” Mayor Brant Walker said. “We’re more fortunate that the last 26 years, this branch has been under the fine leadership of Mr. Gray. I don’t know who’s going to come behind him, but there will be some big shoes to fill.”
On Saturday, hundreds of people were in attendance to honor the longtime president at the 48th annual Freedom Fund banquet at the Atrium Hotel. The theme of the banquet was The End Of An Era.
“I think it’s fitting to have the title The End of an Era: an era of accomplishment, achievement, professionalism that has been demonstrated in race relations over his 26 years as president of the NAACP,” Madison County Auditor Rick Faccin said. “James Gray embodies the attributes of a leader: courage, benediction and diplomacy wherever he goes. A great negotiator and a man who is reasonable, approachable and has just been great for the Alton area over the years.”
Gray became the 17th president of the NAACP Alton branch in 1990. The organization implemented numerous initiatives during his tenure, including a Junior ROTC program at Alton High School that served hundreds of students, a Martin Luther King field trip to Memphis, a “C” average scholarship program that has given thousands of dollars in scholarships, and an annual Back To School Stay In School program that provides free food, motivational speakers, activities, essential school supplies and backpacks to hundreds of underprivileged children.
“I was at the high school a couple of weeks ago and we have a wall of fame,” Associate Judge Luther Simmons said. “Everybody on that wall is either a friend or acquaintance. James Gray is not on that wall. He has done more for education in this city than anybody and we have a wall of fame in our high school that was built largely through his efforts and he’s not on there. That’s a shame and a travesty and we’re going to correct that. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
Fifty years ago, Gray was the first African-American hired in the Light Oil Division of Amoco Oil Co. He was later elected as the first African-American union representative in Amoco’s history and became the first African-American to be elected president in a major oil refinery.
Then, Amoco chose Gray to work with the United Way to raise funds.
“In 1977, they had never sent an African-American to the United Way to raise funds,” Gray said. “The manager of Amoco Oil came to me. He said, ‘Jim, I would like to send you to the United Way. We have never sent any African-Americans to raise funds. You have 12 weeks to work with the United Way to raise funds for the community.’ I never had any experience of doing that. It was two weeks late because all of the other people who were going to raise funds had two weeks training. I went there without any formal training and I was one of the highlights of raising funds in 1977. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis gave me a Yes I Can award because they heard of everything I did.”
Gray was instrumental in opening the new Alton High School in Godfrey after the first bond issue failed.
“We needed that bond issue passed to build a new high school,” Gray said. “Lo and behold, when the next bond issue came up, it passed and as a result, we got the new Alton High School.”
During Gray’s tenure as president, the NAACP has paid for shoes for 60 needy children each year and has taken numerous children shopping for Christmas presents and given each child $100.
“This is my 26th year doing this and I haven’t asked for a dime,” Gray said. “I do it because I love to help and I have a lot of people who joined me to help me make this happen. This has been a wonderful run. We got our first office. We never had an office before. They named it after me. When I first took over, we didn’t have a telephone. The telephone was always at the president’s home. We didn’t have a stable phone number. We got all of that taken care of. This has been a long ride. I enjoyed it. There were some tough times and some bad times, but I never gave it up. I continued to stand there and fight the battle.”
Several awards were given out at the Saturday’s banquet. Rosetta Brown, Alton Branch NAACP secretary Rita Bonds and John and Jayne Simmons received community service awards. James Webb, an assistant pastor of Greater St. James Baptist Church in Alton, received the religious award. The corporate award was given to Argosy Casino and general manager Joelle Shearin accepted the award.
Brown, who grew up in Alton and works for the city’s YWCA, said Gray has been an inspiration in her life.
“Throughout my life, he has always been a giver from the heart,” she said. “He has made some things happen for me and for my family and for the youth of this city and I truly love him and I will follow him wherever he goes. I’ve been in awe of the things he has done for our community.”
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