Oscar Lee Gray (1865-1936) was an educator, attorney, judge, and two-term Democratic representative of Alabama’s First Congressional District. During his time in Congress, Gray advocated for the development of Alabama‘s waterways and infrastructure during World War I.
Gray was born in Marion, Mississippi, on July 2, 1865, to Alanson Jefferson and Elizabeth Jane Nethery Gray; he was one of 10 or 11 children, depending on the source. Alanson Gray was born in Edgefield, South Carolina, and moved to Mississippi with his parents at the age of six and according to some sources served as a captain in the Confederate Army. In June 1866, he moved his family to Choctaw County, where he became a farmer, a lawyer, and a representative to the Alabama Legislature. Oscar was educated in the schools of Choctaw County, including Pushmataha High School, whose principal was noted Alabama historian and educator Joel Campbell DuBose. Gray attended the University of Alabama, where he was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1885. He married Laura Lee Battle of Livingston, Sumter County, on November 27, 1890; together, they had three daughters, two of whom survived to adulthood.
Soon after his graduation, Gray began a successful career as an educator. He served as principal of several Choctaw County schools, including Mulberry School, Chapel Hill Academy, and Butler Academy. He was elected Choctaw County Superintendent of Education in 1894 and served in that capacity until 1900. At some point, he acquired a plantation. Gray first became involved in politics in 1890, when he served as a delegate to the state Democratic Convention. He was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1892 and began practicing law. He was also a presidential elector for Alabama’s First Congressional District in the 1900 election. Gray was elected solicitor for the First Judicial Circuit of Alabama in 1904 and served in that capacity until 1910, when John McDuffie of Monroe County defeated him in a close race. In 1912, he represented Alabama at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, at which Woodrow Wilson was nominated for president. (Alabamian Oscar Underwood, then a U.S. representative, was one of the top four candidates in balloting but withdrew.)
In 1914, Gray was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after George Washington Taylor declined to run for a tenth term. Gray represented Alabama’s First District, which included Choctaw, Marengo, Clarke, Mobile, Washington, and Monroe Counties. He defeated Progressive candidate Henry H. Bolton and Socialist candidate W. M. Doyle. While in Congress, Gray served on the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, advocating for the development of Alabama’s waterways, particularly Mobile Bay. He was also a member of the committees on Railways and Canals, Insular Affairs, and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Gray won a second term in 1916 and returned to Congress in 1917.
As World War I raged in Europe, Gray joined many other politicians of the time in expressing reluctance toward U.S. involvement. Although he encouraged peace, he was resigned to American participation in the conflict if necessary, especially in the case of enemy invasion. In early 1917, Germany renewed submarine attacks on American vessels and attempted to bring Mexico into the war against the United States, prompting Pres. Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2. Gray was the first congressman to sign the declaration, on April 6. When the United States entered the war, Gray presented to Congress a message from the citizens of Mobile, who proclaimed their commitment to the U.S. war effort despite their initial objection to entering the conflict. He cautioned against exhausting the country’s resources on war at the expense of social and educational institutions. He also encouraged strengthening infrastructure, including building roads and making improvements to rivers, harbors, and canals. Gray particularly encouraged the continued development of the Tombigbee-Black Warrior River system and Mobile Bay, arguing that Alabama rivers and harbors would be vital to the war effort as well as to general commercial development.
Gray left Congress in 1919 after another defeat by John McDuffie, who won the Democratic primary by only 157 votes and then the general election. After leaving office, Gray returned to his plantation in Butler County and resumed his law practice. In 1934, he was elected judge of Alabama’s First Judicial Circuit. Gray died at the Shreveport, Louisiana, home of his daughter Bessie on January 2, 1936. He is buried in Forest Park East Cemetery in Shreveport. He was a Baptist and a member of several fraternal organizations, including the Freemasons, the Knights of Pythias, and Woodmen of the World.
- Martin T. Olliff, ed. The Great War in the Heart of Dixie: Alabama during World War I. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.