Mahala Gray

Mahala Gray

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in Records 1805 – 1809

Mahala and Sabina Gray were the first African-American women to own property in Little Compton, and Primus Collins’ daughters, Amey and Lucy Collins followed in their step-aunts’ footsteps.

Mahala and Sabina lived in a different world from their parents, Fortune and Kathrine Gray. Free perhaps from birth or at least from a very young age, the two sisters represent a new generation of people of color who had to renegotiate what it meant to be free in a predominantly white New England. Like their parents, Mahala and Sabina chose to be baptized at the Old Stone Baptist Church in Tiverton, but by 1808 Mahala was making choices regarding her freedom of movement and her education that her parents could only have imagined.[1]

As a young adult Mahala left Little Compton and moved to Newport to enroll in the city’s African Free School from October 1808 to March 1809.[2] The school was one of the many organizations created by growing communities of newly free people of color in Newport and Providence. African-American community leaders worked tirelessly at this time to provide educational and economic opportunities for people of color and to advocate for greater equality before the law.[3] A generation before, Fortune Gray had no other options than to rely on the support of white community leaders to help him marry, become free and establish a home for his family. In this new era of developing freedom, Mahala and Sabina could look to social and political leaders of their own race for encouragement and assistance.

The Gray sisters rented out their Little Compton property to neighbor Samuel Simmons while they lived in Newport. Sabina and William Lawton eventually sold the house and its one-acre lot in 1817 to Nathan Wilbur of Little Compton for $140. [4] Mahala did not play any role in the sale of the property. She may have turned her share of the property over to Sabina, or she may have passed away by this time.

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.

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[1] James Newell Arnold. Rhode Island Vital Extracts, 1636-1850. Providence, RI: Narragansett Historical Publishing Company, 1891-1912. Digitized images from New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA. Tiverton Church Records. Accessed via Ancestry.com.

[2] List of Students at African Free School in Newport.

[3] Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2009.

[4] Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 7, p. 31. Based on boundary descriptions the house was on the west side of Long Highway slightly north of Peckham Road in the “Simmons Hill” area.