by Lynette Taylor
Many of Indianapolis’ African-American suburbs were created or managed by African-American realty professional W.T. Ray. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, William Theodore Ray (1916-2010) made many stops on his path that prepared him for his storied career. A significant factor in Ray’s success was education. Following graduation from public schools in Caldwell, New Jersey, Ray studied business administration at Western Reserve University and Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin that Ray met his future wife, Alice Olga Brokenburr, daughter of Madame C.J. Walker attorney and Indiana’s first African-American State Senator Robert Lee Brokenburr, in 1936. From there, Ray attended Cleveland College part-time from 1938–1939.
Ray’s career as a young business professional was cut short when he entered the army in 1941. While in the military, Ray attended the Officers Candidate School at Edgewood Arsenal, then the Chemical Warfare School in 1942. Later that year, Ray was stationed in Tucson, Arizona at Ft. Huadhuca as the instructor in the general staff of the Chemical Warfare section while taking a staff officers’ course in order to get promoted to Major in the U. S. Chemical Warfare Service. Before being shipped out, Alice and her father traveled to Arizona where the couple was married. During World War II, Ray served in the Northern Solomons, New Guinea, Mortal, and the Philippines, after which he was honorably discharged in 1945 and awarded a bronze medal and three campaign stars.
Upon returning to the States, Ray settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, Alice’s hometown, where they remained the rest of their lives. Soon after arriving, Ray again returned to school, attending Indiana University–Indianapolis from 1946 to 1947 to earn a degree in real estate. In the realty professional’s role, Ray had a front row seat to the suburbanization of Indianapolis’ African American residents through his real estate business. W.T. Ray Realty Company opened in early 1946 at 510 North West Street and operated for 35 years. In fact, he sold suburbanization: as the sales agent for Augusta Way, a 45-acre suburban addition west of Grandview Drive between 62nd and 64th Streets, Ray unveiled the neighborhood builder’s new 1,400 square feet, $17,800 floorplan actually called the “Suburban” in 1956. In 1959, as Ray’s business grew, W.T. Ray Realty opened new offices on the ground floor of the Walker Building. The agency’s former office now became the headquarters for a group Ray has begun to be involved with, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
From 1947 to 1949, Ray served as the president of the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP, having been elected unanimously and running unopposed three times. Ray declined to accept renomination in 1950 due to the increased time constraints of his growing business, and instead took the role of second vice-president. Over the years, he would alternately serve as second vice-president, treasurer, and a member of the executive board. During his tenure with the organization, Ray formed a Youth Council; worked on jobs campaign in public utilities, particularly Indiana Bell Telephone Company; protested higher streetcar fares in partnership with the North Side Civic League against Indianapolis Street Railways; protested the race-discrimination by American Bowling Congress for “holding a lily-white national tournament” out of Indiana’s Fairgrounds Cow Barn; and he worked to end “jimcrow” city schools by bringing a federal court case against the Indianapolis School Board. The court case was supported by NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall and Ray was part of a parent group of 45 protesting the redistricting of the school his children went to, School 42, which was resolved by the passage of the Anti-Segregated School Law by the state legislature. In a speech before the Indianapolis School Board, Ray said:
“It has been adequately proved by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and others that segregation is harmful not only to the Black minority but to the white majority who enforces it… It is undemocratic and unjust as increases racial tensions by forcing segregation on those who don’t want it. It renders a program of intercultural education virtually impossible in a period when such a program is desperately needed. It is economically unsound, and has ever been in practice. We should like to point out that Indianapolis lags behind many other cities in the state in this regard—Fort Wayne. Muncie, South Bend, Anderson, and other cities do not segregate their children, and Gary is presently taking a courageous step to abolish the system in its public schools.”
In addition to his activism on education reform, Ray also worked to improve housing access for Indianapolis’ African American residents. This included holding an Open Occupancy Housing Conference, along with Indianapolis Community Relations Council and the NAACP; serving as moderator for “Housing for the Black Minority” panel; speaking in favor of tolerance in an integrated neighborhood situation at the Jewish Center; contributing as a speaker before 200 Indiana officials attending the Governor’s conference on discrimination in housing; discussing the lack of low-rent housing in Indianapolis and the function of the City Redevelopment Commission at a public forum “The Past is Prologue—New Concepts Emerge”; and speaking before the U.S. Rights Commission as Indiana’s first African American agent for a fire and casualty company on legal boundaries against African Americans being legally licensed “realtors.” This resulted in Ray becoming the first African American member of the Indianapolis Real Estate Board in 1965, after which he became an active member of the Indianapolis Board of Realtors. Additionally, Ray participated as a panelist in a discussion on “The Negro as a Suburban Neighbor” on February 4, 1961 where he explained “If the Negro community is expanding only into the northwest area, you’re to blame and not us. We would move into many parts of the suburbs, but the city has decided that is the only direction we shall be allowed to expand.”
His roles within the business community and his experience with civil rights activism led Ray to become involved in politics. He would work for the Republican party for nearly 19 years, campaigning for candidates and even running for office himself. His political career includes appointments as part of the formation of a statewide committee for fair employment, with representatives of employers, minority groups, government and labor, endorsed by the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce; one of twenty-nine named to a long-range planning committee for the Health and Welfare Council of Indianapolis and Marion County; one of 26 members of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, headed by prominent banker Frank McKinney and named by Mayor John J. Barton; a member of Ruby’s Chamber of Commerce Crime Commission; chairman of the State Manpower Development Council; a member of the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity in 1976; a member of the Downtown Development Task Force; head of the state’s Department of as field examiners; and administrative assistant to Gov. Bowen for eight years-—the highest state government post ever held by an African American, with a salary of $23,000—with direct responsibility over several significant divisions and responsibility for coordinating the Lieutenant Governor’s concern for small business. Additionally, Ray served on boards of directors or commissions as both member and officer of a number of organizations including the Washington Township Schools, United Way, Indianapolis Foundation, IUPUI Board of Advisors, Indianapolis Economic Development Corporation, BOS Community Development Corporation, Crooked Creek Community Center, the Black American Military Heritage Commission, Flanner House Homes, Inc. Central Indiana Boy Scouts, WFYI-Channel 20, and the Association for Merit Employment. Further, Ray was the first chairman of the board of the Fund for Hoosier Excellence, Inc initiated by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, which provides the annual Lugar Scholarship, and remained in that position from 1983-1989. Over his life, he was awarded the 1993 recipient of the Living Legends in Black for African-American men, the Sagamore of the Wabash from both Governors Bowen and Orr, and named Republican Man of the Year by the Republican Mayors’ Association, as well as receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Indianapolis.
Though Ray’s life was full of opportunities, he was met with opposition on almost every occasion. As Indianapolis’ first African American “realtist” to be formally recognized as a “realtor,” Ray was able to use his realty business to not only change how others saw African Americans, but also helped pave the way towards a more equal future. Ray’s activism may have helped himself and his business, Ray’s legacy is nonetheless layered with determination in the face of resistance to segregation. He took these opportunities to not only better himself, but everyone involved, and the history of Indianapolis and its suburbs are the richer for his efforts.