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Black history month: Eli Grey, Civil War-era barber in York

Harrisburg Patriot, September 12, 1910
Harrisburg Patriot, September 12, 1910; courtesy of Norman Gasbarro’s Civil War blog, used with written permission.

Eli Grey (also spelled Gray in some accounts) was a fixture in downtown York, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War years (1861-1865). Since medieval times, surgeons and physicians often also doubled as barbers (hence the red stripes for blood on traditional barber poles), as well as practicing dentistry and other medical crafts in addition to cutting hair and trimming beards. By the time of the Civil War, dedicated stand-alone barber shops were much more common, and barbering was a vocation listed in the US Census reports of the mid-19th century.

Fellow Civil War blogger Norm Gasbarro has been researching a variety of black men with ties to the war and kindly gave me permission to reproduce some of his findings about Eli Grey, which I have added to my own research on the war-time barber.

Grey's/Gray's death certificate
Eli Grey’s death certificate, courtesy of Norm Gasbarro

There are not many contemporary accounts of Grey in the literature of York County from the Civil War period (he does not appear in Prowell’s History of York County or Gibson’s History of York County), likely because he moved away from town in 1865 to downtown Harrisburg, where he barbered in the National Hotel for 25 years.

According to his gravestone in Lebanon Cemetery in North York (along N. George Street north of Prospect Hill Cemetery), Eli Grey was born on November 1, 1834. Note that according to the death certificate, he was the son of William and Amanda (Brown) Grey. However the following entry from the Harrisburg Telegraph February 7, 1896, lists his parents as Singleton M. Grey and Mary E. Grey. The 1850 U.S. Census records confirm that Maryland-born Singleton Gray (note the spelling) was the head of a household which included Mary and Eli Gray.

[Death of a Good Woman. Mrs. Mary E. Grey died yesterday morning at the residence of her daughter, Mrs. A. C. Brown, 414 Walnut street. She was the widow of the late Singleton M Grey, of York. Her death was caused by organic heart disease. She was a kind and affectionate mother and a consistent Christian, being a member of the Wesley Union Church. The surviving children are Mrs. D. B. [Elizabeth] Bowser, of Philadelphia; Eli Grey and Mrs. A. C. [Amanda Cornelia] Brown, of Harrisburg. The burial will take place at York on Monday.] Their graves are, by the way, marked as Singleton M. Gray (1809-1862) and Mary Elizabeth Gray (1811-1897). Mary’s grave is marked as “Elizabeth to her mother.”

Eli was raised in York and likely would have learned the hair-cutting trade as an apprentice to an established barber, possibly William C. Goodridge (the black entrepreneur/businessman and reported Underground Railroad conductor). The Goodridge family was inter-connected with the Greys in that Glenalvin Goodridge had married 16-year-old Rhoda Cornelia Grey, whose parents were likely related to Eli’s family although I have been unable to confirm this point. Rhoda was the daughter of Hamilton Grey, a Marylander who may have been Singleton’s brother.

At some point, young Grey struck out on his own and would have been practicing his craft at the time the Confederates threatened to invade York County. Like many blacks of the south-central tier of border counties, he most likely either headed north to Harrisburg or east to Columbia when word came of the Rebel advance. Given that Grey had family in Harrisburg and moved there after the war, that was his most likely destination. He probably returned to his barber shop at some point long after Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had withdrew from the Keystone State following the battle of Gettysburg in early July.

City directories of Harrisburg show that Eli Grey ran a barber shop in the 400 block of Walnut Street in the Old Eighth Ward at the turn of the century. The National Hotel, where he earlier practiced his trade, was on the corner of the intersection of State and North Fourth in the Old Eighth Ward.

Eli Grey's headstone in North York's Lebanon Cemetery. Photo by Gloria Ehrhart Miller, Find-a-Grave.
Eli Grey’s headstone in North York’s Lebanon Cemetery. Photo by Gloria Ehrhart Miller, Find-a-Grave.

Upon his death in 1910 from “cardiac dropsy,” his sister Cornelia (likely the Mrs. A. C. Brown mentioned in the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper article) had his headstone inscribed “Cornelia to her brother” [the the similarity to how his other sister Elizabeth had inscribed the tombstone a few years earlier to their mother].

His obituary from the Patriot reads:


Had Worked At His Trade for Half a Century

Eli Grey, one of the oldest Negro barbers in the state died last evening shortly after 8:30 o’clock at the home of his sister, Mrs. A. C. Brown, 267 Briggs Street [Harrisburg].  He was in his seventy-seventh year.

The arrangements for the funeral have not yet been completed, but it is understood that the services will be held Wednesday at the home of Mrs. Brown, his only surviving relative.

Grey was born in York, Pennsylvania, and lived there until 1865.  It was there he began his trade as a barber and worked at his trade in that city throughout the Civil War days.  In 1865 he came to this city [Harrisburg] and worked as a barber here.  For twenty-five years he conducted a shop under the National Hotel.