Moselle Gray

Moselle Gray

Birth Date Unknown, c. 1857 — 1912

Much of what we know about Moselle Gray’s life in Little Compton comes to us from the papers of George Gray’s daughter Bessie. A number of those papers were bundled together, tied up with string and marked “Burn Without Reading.” There was nothing scandalous in their pages, nothing worth hiding, mostly letters to relatives and friends about everyday occurrences. Once in a very great while those occurrences would involve Moselle. Whether Bessie simply meant to remind herself to burn the letters without bothering to read through them again or to instruct her heirs to destroy them, no one burned the letters. Her heirs gave them to the Little Compton Historical Society along with a few daybooks and a number of photo albums that each in their own way providing clues about Moselle’s life with the Grays in Little Compton.

Moselle came into the world around 1857, just as her master Arnold Gray left it. Arnold may never have known of Moselle’s existence, but she was a valuable part of the estate he left to his northern relatives. Her mother was either Hannah or Emeline, Arnold’s two enslaved women who had children at the time. Around 1860 Arnold’s brother Willard, her new master, arranged for Moselle to be taken away from everyone she knew in the South and brought North to begin a new life as a free child in his household. 

For the rest of her childhood, Moselle lived with several generations of Grays in the Betty Alden House on Little Compton’s Great West Road. Betty Alden – Elizabeth Alden Pabodie – was the first white child born in New England and spent her final days in the Betty Alden House. Moselle was certainly not the first African-American girl to live in Little Compton, but she was literally the only one when she arrived in 1860.

Moselle’s northern family consisted of Willard, who was sixty-two; his wife Judith Wilbor Gray, who had grown up across the street as part of a Quaker family living in what is now the Wilbor House Museum; their son George Arnold, aged thirty-four, whose middle name honored Moselle’s former master; and George’s new bride Elizabeth Hicks Howland, another Quaker who joined the family in 1859. The birth of George and Elizabeth’s only child, a daughter named Bessie, completed the family in 1862. Willard passed away in 1874 leaving George as the head of the household. Through the years, servants and relatives would come and go, each helping in their own way with the work on the Gray’s farm overlooking the Sakonnet River.  

Moselle attended public school Number 8, one of Little Compton’s one-room school houses, and was the only child of color in her school at the time. She completed the school’s eight grades, and when she was fourteen worked as a domestic for Henry and Annie Wilbor and their four children. George and Ruth Burleigh lived right next door.[1] Several years later in 1875 Moselle was back with the Grays as a “servant” in the household, working as their cook.[2]

Moselle’s position in the household stands in contrast to that of Bessie, the Grays’ daughter. While Moselle was photographed in a simple dress and left school after grade eight to go into service, Bessie was photographed in an extravagant dress and after eight grades in Little Compton attended a private school in New Bedford. Moselle may have been treated kindly by the Grays, but she was not treated like a daughter. According to Little Compton Historian Carlton Brownell, Little Compton’s “best families never allowed their sons and daughters to work for others,” and the Grays were among the best.[3] They held different standards and different expectations for their child than they did for their ward from the South.

Life changed dramatically for Moselle on July 5, 1876 when she gave birth to a little girl she named Alice. The doctor who recorded Alice’s birth wrote that the baby was black and left the space for her father blank. A few years later the Gray’s next door neighbor Philip Wilbour served as the 1880 Federal Census taker and listed Alice’s race as mulatto. Philip knew that Alice’s father was a white man who lived in or passed through Little Compton. 

The Gray family had saved Moselle from slavery, but they were unable to protect her from the dangers of living as a young black woman in an almost exclusively white community. Alice’s birth was the result of either rape, or less likely, a consensual interracial relationship that did not continue. In either case Moselle’s already challenging life, poised somewhere between a servant and a poor relation, became immeasurably more difficult as the single mother of a biracial child. People in the family and in the community almost certainly knew who Alice’s father was, or might have been, but no one recorded that information.

Whatever the Grays’ reaction to Moselle’s pregnancy might have been – sympathy, guilt, anger, shock – they did not put her out of the house. Moselle and baby Alice continued to live with the Grays for several years, and though Moselle may have suffered dark moods at times, Alice was a joy, and the family doted on her.  

Elizabeth Gray’s diary and five bundles of letters that Bessie once wanted to burn matter-of-factly record moments in the household shortly after Alice joined the family.

From Elizabeth Gray’s Day Book 1878

Tuesday, January 29Clear & Cold. Mosell has gone to have her dress cut. 

Monday, February, 11 – Cool & pleasant. Have been helping Moselle with her sewing. Made 4 skirts for Alice cut one apron & three waists 

Thursday, February 14 – Pleasant with wind south west. Mosell has gone up to Kate’s [Kate Wilbor – George Gray’s Sister] to spend the day 

Monday, March 4 – Warm & Pleasant. Judith Sisson called here today. Moselle commenced work today.[4]

Elizabeth behaved in a caring and helpful way to Moselle and Alice, and included them in her diary as often and in the same practical manner she included her husband and daughter. Her husband George wrote more descriptively and with genuine emotion.

Letters from George to Bessie Gray at School in New Bedford 

Undated – Mama lays on the Sofa night & day so that you see she can keep warm & see the plants in all their greenness.  Moselle is good natured and Alice attentive. The weather is lovely for winter. The shelled barley in the bottom of the Sheep Racks is growing luxuriantly a thing I never saw before in Jan. & the grass in the yard is looking quite green and is growing…. With much love from your worshipful Father I am yours affectionately G. A. Gray

March 30th – Mrs. Burleigh was up Saturday & staid the night as also yesterday & said this morning when she left that she was coming again in the afternoon. Mosell & Alice are down to Rosetta to day as they propose to be next & the next also.  So Mam has most of the work to do, it is now 1 P.M. and she has not sit down with me five minutes today. …I should like of all things to give my little daughter a few kisses.  She is just lovely & I hope will take good care of herself. Give my love to Cousin Lizzie & tell her that the motto over here is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” ….Yours affectionately GA Gray

Sept. 21 – It has been a pleasant to day, Alice & myself have looked over the Pear trees.  I think the Septem. Crop is not quite ready to gather….The watermelons are ripe I think. I often have the chance to give them away, carried one over to John Seabury’s the other day 2 to Abby Franklyn to day….The Grapes do not sell very well in Boston just now, but Have no trouble in giving them away at home.  The Muscat Hamburg is going to be as black as a – a – well a nigger. Give my love to Cousin Lizzie & tell her never to let me hear of her enquiring about black hands, Sign of a diseased mind, which is worse than any colored hand.  With Love I am as ever your dear Papa  

Oct. 20 – We have 12 little chickens which Alice and I am trying to raise, they were such a nice flock. P.S. I enclose a picture from Alice which it gives her great pleasure to send.  As ever your loving Papa.  

May 9 – Sold Robert a fat Cow yesterday & shall soon have money enough to pay your schooling. By the way I left the Bill with Otis Seabury at his request & he said he would pay it if it was necessary & if he don’t I will under the same circumstances. So give your self no uneasiness about the matter…. If you do about as well as you can you will stand as near the head of the class as I want you to. Near enough to be President. I think Gen Grant was 8th in his.  With much love I am your devoted & affectionate Papa 

Letter from George Gray to his Wife Elizabeth at New Bedford 

Feb. 16  – Alice had a Valentine from Teenie [Bessie] – with this motto  I love you dear, I love you dear Tis all that I can say And all that you will care to hear This beautiful spring day[5]

As soon as she could toddle, Alice became George’s little shadow on the farm. He carried her to the orchard and the chicken coop and involved her in his quiet routine as a gentleman farmer. Alice helped fill a gap in the family, and in George’s heart, when Bessie went away to school, a school they sometimes struggled to afford. Moselle worked, and when she was gone, visiting or working for others, the Grays noticed her absence and had much more work to do themselves. George’s comment that Moselle was “good natured” must have been welcome news to Bessie, but hints that Moselle’s good mood was not always the case.

George’s admonitions to Bessie to ignore her Cousin Lizzie’s racist comments are the most interesting parts of his letters, especially considering his use of the word “nigger” to describe the black grapes he grew. Here was a man with a young black woman and her child living as welcome parts of his household. He protested the racist comments his daughter heard at school, and yet still thought “nigger” jokes were appropriate in a letter to a teenage girl. He also joked with Bessie that she was destined to be the President of the United States, while the other daughter figure in his life, Moselle, was educated only for domestic service. George was perhaps one of the most welcoming and supportive people in his Little Compton community when it came to people of color, but he still drew a deep line in the sand when it came to his expectations for his white daughter and his black ward. Late nineteenth-century New England was free but still not equal. 

The Burleighs, too, took an interest in Moselle and Alice. George Burleigh frequently wrote for children, including Bessie Gray, and among his manuscripts are two poems that may have been intended for Alice. Ruth and Moselle corresponded, especially once George and Ruth began spending more time in Providence with their son, painter Sydney Burleigh. Ruth would comment on those letters when she wrote to Bessie, whom she considered her honorary niece.

Letters from “Aunt” Ruth Burleigh to Bessie Gray

Providence, Nov. 13, 1881 – I received a letter from Moselle yesterday saying that they had not heard from her, [Elizabeth Gray was traveling and temporarily unaccounted for] but doubtless you all heard before the week was out.  

Providence, Jan 6, 1884 – I had not heard of Moselle’s visit until you told me. Did she stay with you mostly? I am glad to find that Alice can learn something from books, and hope her Mother will let her have a chance.[6]  

Little Allie, black-eyed chit,

How she baffles all my wit,

As she sits in silent mood

In her happy solitude,

And I guess what fancies lie

Far behind that midnight eye,

Till anon in light they break,

Like the ropes on a lake

When a gold-fish, leaping, leaves

Rings around the spot he cleaves.

Little Allie by George S. Burleigh [7]

Ruth’s letters tell us that Alice may have had some learning challenges, and that there was some question about Moselle allowing her to continue to try and learn. They also show that Moselle and Alice were still with the Grays in 1881 and living elsewhere in 1884. That Moselle and Alice would return for visits to the Grays indicates that they left on friendly terms. Most importantly, Ruth’s letters show that Moselle and Alice were connected to not only the Grays, but other friends and neighbors in Little Compton.

Sarah Burleigh, Ruth and George’s daughter-in-law, recalled her neighbors the Grays and Moselle when Sarah first arrived in town.  

Mr. Gray and Mrs. Gray and little Bessie were living at the next house. She was a dear little girl with pink cheeks and long light hair – I think she was about six years old. Mr. Gray was a fine farmer, a very nice man, very quiet indeed, I don’t know how many of you knew him, but he would have been perfectly at home in a Yorkshire village. He was English all over. He was rather under middle height and stout, heavy and very firmly built; he wasn’t fat at all; but he was a heavy man, strong, he had light curly hair, very blue eyes, and very pink cheeks and a very pleasant smile and a twinkle. He was a very fine man. 

He had a colored hired man, one of the two colored people in the town. Mr. Willard Gray, his father, had a brother who had gone south and lived on a plantation. At his death, two of his slaves came to Mr. Willard Gray among his portions of the property; and he immediately freed them and brought them north. One was a little girl when she came, and they brought her up and she lived with them many years until she married and moved away. [8]

Moselle did move to Newport, but it was not because she married, and Sarah Burleigh almost certainly knew that. Sarah told this sanitized version of Moselle’s story in 1937 before an audience at a Little Compton Historical Society meeting. A number of audience members probably knew the truth as well.

Sometime between 1881 and 1884 Moselle and Alice moved to Newport to live with another branch of the Gray family. Moselle worked as a maid for the widow Almy Gray, who was ninety-five years old in 1885, and her unmarried daughter Louise. Almy’s deceased husband, Edward, was Arnold Gray’s twin. We do not know if the men were identical twins, but if they were, Moselle may have seen the spitting image of her former master whenever she met Edward. While her mother worked, Alice attended school, nine months a year. Moselle stayed for several years with Almy and Louise Gray, but eventually struck out on her own, perhaps because she had another illegitimate child in 1888.[9]

Local historian Sarah Soule Wilbour certainly knew Moselle’s truth, and hints at it in the pages of her diary.

Thurs. Dec. 12, 1889 – lost a days knitting on some stockings I have begun for a poor child in Newport whose mother was born a slave

Mon. Dec. 16. 1889 – I am knitting the stockings for charity sake, I pity the waifs who are thrown on the cold world without a welcome

Tues. Dec. 18, 1889 – Finished my stockings I am bothered in my mind as to how much I should give for Christmas, and what to give, and who to give to, it is a perfect craze in these days, never thought of such things when I was young 

There were more stockings the following year.

Mon. Dec. 29, 1890 – I went to Kates [George Gray’s sister] she helped me about my stockings for Mosells little girls I shall send some money to get her shoes, poor little waif, thrown on the World by the sin of others such deserves our sympathy 

Fri. Jan. 9 1891 – I have sent by the way of Kate 2 pairs of stockings and two dollars in money to Louisa for the poor waif mosell has picked up in Newport.

Mosell was a slave belonging to Arnold Gray, he died without family or will, his property came to his brothers and sisters here, his brother Willard had two Slaves, a man & Moselle then a little girl he gave them their freedom she was brought up in his family and then went to Newport, poor thing, she don’t know how to take care of herself.[10]

Even after they left Little Compton, Sarah Soule Wilbour, a local activist and friend and neighbor of the Burleighs and Grays, kept track of Moselle and her girls through Louise Gray. Sarah was willing to help them, at least with an occasional gift. Sarah pitied Moselle’s children and was angered by the “sin of others,” but it is not quite clear if Sarah thought that sin was Moselle’s or the men’s who left her with fatherless children. It is clear that Sarah believed Moselle “don’t know how to take care of herself.” 

After leaving Almy and Louise’s home, Moselle and her growing family lived in several Newport apartments, and she made a living as a laundress. She had Mable in 1888 and another little girl, Bessie Violet, joined the family in 1892.[11]Bessie Violet Gray was very likely named after the Bessie Gray both Moselle and Alice knew and loved in Little Compton.  As time passed Moselle began to report that she was a widow when census takers came to call, a little white lie that helped preserve the family’s dignity. Moselle also answered the question regarding how many children she had differently at different times. In one census she answered that she had had four children, only three of whom survived. In another she reported only two children. She always listed Alice, Mable and Bessie as her daughters but their birth years varied in some censuses by as many as five years. 

As soon as she was old enough Alice entered domestic service, sometimes as a laundress and sometimes as a cook, to help the family make ends meet. Charles Gaines boarded with the family in 1910 and fathered a child with Alice around that time, whom they named Alfaretta Gaines. At age eighteen, Bessie married a black Portuguese man, likely Cape Verdean, named Manuel Fernandes who was ten years her senior and an assistant supervisor at a cranberry bog. Her mother and sisters rented an apartment in the same house.[12]

Alice died of an infection at the very young age of thirty-four in 1911, and Moselle passed away the following year of pneumonia aged fifty-six. Alice and Charles never married but even after her death, he remained part of the family. In 1917 he and his daughter Alfaretta served as witnesses to Bessie’s second marriage to Thomas Thornton. It was Alfaretta who carried on Moselle and Alice’s legacy. She married Milton Massey in 1923, and together they raised a family that thrived in the Newport area. Today Moselle Gray has dozens of descendants who until recently were only slightly familiar with her fascinating history.

Massey family stories add to the rich and complicated nature of that history. The family questioned whether Bessie Violet was really Moselle’s child or Alice’s. Bessie’s death certificate confirms that her mother was actually Alice. The Massey’s know almost nothing about Mabel, suggesting that she may have died quite young, but there are no known records to confirm that. An intriguing family story relates that while Alice was alive, she received an envelope every month from Little Compton with money in it. When Alice died, the family told the postman, and the envelopes stopped coming. Moselle was still living at the time. Whoever was sending money from Little Compton was doing it for Alice’s sake, not Moselle’s. 

Bessie Violet once went to Little Compton to see where her mother had lived. When she went to the Betty Alden House the people there “acted like she wanted something” and turned her away. Little Compton’s Bessie Gray had passed away in XXXX, and it was very likely that the new residents, who were not related to the Grays, knew nothing of Moselle’s story. During that visit Bessie Violet went to the library in Little Compton and someone there told her the slightly garbled story of two little girls coming up to Little Compton on the Underground Railroad.[13]

Family stories do not have a satisfactory explanation as to who Alice’s father may have been. Her death record lists her parents as Lorenzo and Moselle Gray, but it is very possible that this was another little white lie intended to preserve the women’s dignity. There were a number of men in Little Compton around the time of Alice’s birth with names like Lorenzo Gray. There was a Lorenzo who worked for George Gray, but his last name was Smith.[14] There was a Loring Gray who was frequently in trouble with the town.[15] There was an Alonzo who went out to sea.[16] The Masseys are now learning more about their ancestry using DNA tests, and the tests show strong genetic ties to the Grays and Wilbors of Tiverton and Little Compton. 

Willard Gray’s decision to stop the sale of the enslaved man and girl he inherited from his brother and bring them to Little Compton was viewed as the pivotal moment in his life. Certainly it changed Benjamin and Moselle Gray’s lives forever. The Grays were not successful in protecting Moselle while she lived in their home. Her life in the North was not easy. Freedom did not mean comfort and equality in late-nineteenth-century New England. Moselle struggled; her daughters struggled, and perhaps there were days when she wondered what her life would have been if she had stayed in North Carolina with her mother and her siblings. For better or for worse, that decision was made for her. As hard as Moselle’s life may have been, Willard’s decision still resonates today with each new addition to the Massey family.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.

Back to Table of Contents


[1] 1870 Federal Census, Little Compton, Rhode Island.  Moselle’s age varies in the census by a few years.  According to census information she may have been born anytime between 1856 and 1858.  For Moselle’s possible mothers see: Arnold Gray, Estate Account, May 1857, Hyde County Estate Records, p. 238 & 239. Accessed via familysearch.com.

[2] 1875 Rhode Island State Census, Little Compton.

[3] Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Carlton Brownell ed., Notes on Little Compton, (Little Compton Historical Society), p. 112.  

[4] Elizabeth Gray’s Day Books, Bessie Gray Collection, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[5] Gray Family Letters, Bessie Gray Collection, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[6] Gray Family Letters, Bessie Gray Collection, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[7] The poem continues for five more stanzas mentioning that Allie is a “Little Queen” with “starry black eyes” and “the dark wealth of her hair.” It does also mention her “white” arm. Alice was mixed race and may have been light skinned, but it is also possible the poem was intended for another little girl.  The second poem entitled “Birth Day Speech” starts with “I’m a big little girl with a coal-black eye, Named Alice with Allie to call me by. George, S. Burleigh, Handwritten Manuscript, “Our Pets and Their Pets,” George and Ruth Burleigh Collection, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[8]  Sarah Burleigh, Interview, Transcript, 1936. Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[9] 1885 Rhode Island State Census. The census states that Moselle lives in household 586 while Alice and the Grays live in household 556.  After careful review, I believe this to be an error. If Moselle was in 586 (a coachman’s family who almost certainly could not afford a servant), it would have one too many residents, and 556 would have one too few residents. Mabel Gray’s Birth Record, Newport, RI, 1888.

[10] Diary of Sarah Soule Wilbour, Transcription, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[11] Bessie Violet Gray Fernandes Thornton’s Marriage Record, Newport, Rhode Island, 1917. 

[12] 1910 Federal Census, Newport, RI.

[13] Oral History with Brandon and Loretta Massey, 2015, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[14] Lorenzo Smith, Probate Records of Willard Gray, Little Compton Probate Records, Book 11, p. 736.

[15] Loring Gray, ibid, p. 297 & 300.

[16] Alonzo Gray, Crew Lists, New Bedford Whaling Museum, on-line resource.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s