By Dr. Joseph King Jr.
Cincinnatian William Joel McCray is a national and local treasure.
Growing up in a segregated environment, his dreams, desires and accomplishments are noteworthy.
“The Quiet Man,” also nicknamed “Hickory Stick,” over a number of years supported, educated and developed children, family members for the nation.
Mr. McCray, as he is fondly called, supported family members by teaching children of their parents he taught years before.
He prefers to support others in the background. He does not like fanfare, or high profile or a lot of attention. That’s why I call him “The Quiet Man.”
Mr. McCray demonstrated a desire to add value to many lives of Cincinnatians as a teacher and community leader, particularly because many of his former students are community and national leaders. He also is a distinguished educator, as one of a distinct few African Americans who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in the 1950s, he is still vital today in providing opportunities for its current students and alumni. He also has been a patron of the arts and music, and his activities are noteworthy in Cincinnati and beyond.
McCray was born Oct. 03, 1923, in Macon Ga., to William T. and Lllie McCray. His parents and brother, Robert Lewis McCray, moved to Cincinnati where they lived with them in the West End. The area now is referred to as the historic West End. Mr. McCray called the area a “colored mecca” at that time.
His grandparent Diana Logan from Byron, Ga., had quite an influence on his character development. In the West End he resided at Fourth and Clark streets between Central Avenue and John Street. In his formative years Blacks followed the Jewish residents to Avondale and Walnut Hills, however Blacks could buy land in Lockland and Lincoln Heights, Ohio.
Mr. McCray was also influenced by his aunts. He indicates that they were very creative and that at the time women “wore the pants” and were an authority figure in the home.
He refers to his mother as “a little lady with a big stick.”
Mr. McCray was educated in the Cincinnati public school system. He attended Washburn, Sherman and Jackson Elementary Schools. He also taught at Samuel Ach Junior High six months ahead of schedule.
After graduating from Harriet B. Stowe School in 1940, he enlisted in the United States military, U.S. Air corps. While only 18 years of age he received basic training at Sheppard Field, Wichita Falls, Texas, Orlando Florida, and served his country in the administration field in the Adjutant General’s (AG) Corps. He also served in Pensacola, Fla.
After the military and World War II. During high school Mr. McCray’s had desires to become a valet, railway clerk or entertainer. He indicates that during the time those were the only occupations he desired that were available to African American men. Mr. McCray also worked for the US Treasury and Commerce Departments.
After Mr. McCray attended and graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Education (Teacher’s College) in 1954, the year of the landmark education case Brown v. Board of Education. I mention this case to describe the historical backdrop of what was occurring at the time. To graduate from Teacher’s College at his time is noteworthy as it relates to Civil Rights issues that were present in the country and in Cincinnati.
Mr. McCray’s graduating class was “conspicuously absent” of African American males.
His discussion of the period also states that men with degrees held lesser qualified jobs as valets and postal workers, and also that Black teachers who were married were not hired.
Mr. McCray indicates that at the University of Cincinnati he was one of the only Black male students at the time. He states that many African American students attended Wilberforce, Fisk, Howard and Kentucky State universities but very few attended the University of Cincinnati.
As a social studies and language arts teacher he talks about times he grew up not “entirely poor” and that his mother worked and did sewing and knitting, and that his father worked and they made a living. He fondly remembers good relations with his aunts and uncles, particularly “Uncle Bubba.” In fact, he says he loved Uncle Bubba more than Dad and also states that during the period his elders never talked about slavery.
He indicated that many Blacks worked for wealthy White families and that was the way they made their living. Mr. McCray participated in activities at the Ninth Street YMCA, a facility referred to as the “colored YMCA.”
He also states that a “Black women could get jobs, when Black men could not.” He points out that Black men would walk away and never be heard from again.
Mr. McCray also states that Blacks could not attend theaters downtown or other public accommodations, and that Cincinnati was the “most southern, northern most town.”
He further indicates the times were very different from the present. “I was there — not that I just heard about it,” he said.
He was also an active member of the NAACP.
Mr. McCray started teaching at South Avondale Elementary School. He taught with other notable Cincinnatians, such as Dr. Marian Spencer; Mrs. Helen Green, his music teacher; Mrs. Elizabeth Lemon, mother of The Cincinnati Herald publisher Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney; Mrs. Betsy Noble; and Mrs. Sally Trent.
Mr. McCray, as a teacher and mentor, has developed many leaders in Cincinnati and around the nation. To name a few, such leaders as J. Kenneth Blackwell, former mayor of Cincinnati and Ohio Secretary of State.
Former students include, Blackwell; Pastor Jonathan Dale Brown of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church; Wendell Young, Cincinnati Councilman; Ival Angel, operator at Duke Energy Corporation; Dr. Joseph King Jr., professor and chief Human Capital officer, U.S. Army ARDEC, (retired); Audrey Dubose, family member of Samuel Dubose; Delores Martin, teacher, Winton Woods School District; and Janiece Dalmida, nutrition specialist with 4C For Children; and attorney and Colonel James A Lewis, United States Army, Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.
Mr. McCray joined a group which began in the 1930s at the University of Cincinnati that participated in poker, bridge parties, raffles and raised funds for scholarships. These events became a tradition in the old Great Hall of the Student Union. The group continued for four decades, ending in the 1970s. The card parties, bake sales, raffles raised tens of thousands of dollars that were invested in the educational alumni scholarship fund. Mr. McCray received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services in 2010.
Today, this fund benefits several students each year. In 2017, 400 students in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services and information technology receive scholarships totaling approximately $700,000 to support their academic and intellectual development. The educational alumni scholarship fund remains active today with a close-knit group of supporters. William Joel McCray is still an active member of this group.
Mr. McCray has a deep abiding faith that “We Are All God’s Children.” He first became a member of Metropolitan Cincinnati CME Church in the West End. He has most enjoyed being a member of the choir. At the same time Mr. McCray sang in the Zion Baptist Church Choir, he states he attended the church and choir rehearsal and enjoyed singing in choir but is not a member.
In 1956, he joined Bahá’í faith, which accepts all religions and beliefs that we are all brothers and sisters in the garden of God. It posits a “global transformation leading to the Oneness of humanity.”
Mr. McCray has been active in the local art scene. “I jumped into the soup” he said.
He has been an active enthusiast, purchasing art, supporting artists and admiring art and music. He has also been fascinated by fashion and is known as “dapper.” He is neat and trim and dress and appearance and bearing. He states that fashion is also art it is the presence and bearing of one’s self.
The Robert S. Duncanson Society was originated in 1986 by Doris Rankin Sells, William Joel McCray, and Ruth K. Meyer to affirm an ongoing African American presence within the structure of the Taft Museum of Art to celebrate Robert S. Duncanson’s historic and artistic contributions. The Taft Museum recognizes the achievements of contemporary African Americans through the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program. Duncanson painted the murals that adorn the walls at 316 Pike Street, which at the time belonged to Nicholas Longsworth. The Artist-In-Residence program recently celebrated its 25th year. McCray has also supported the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
William Joel McCray has served Cincinnati as teacher and community leader, distinguished educator and patron of the arts and music. A true leader, is one who states, “I don’t need any credit,” a behind the scenes operator and supporter who has served Cincinnati, a true, living “Cincinnati treasure.”
“I do things that make me feel good about Cincinnati” says McCray” Finally Mr. McCray states, “It’s all about the children” to which he has dedicated his life.