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On March 10, 1984, Wil Lou Gray passed away in Columbia. She was one hundred years’ old and dedicated her life to fighting illiteracy and poverty in South Carolina. Gray was the daughter of a prominent attorney and merchant, William Lafayette Gray, who was also a state representative from Laurens County. Her mother, Sarah Louise Dial, the sister of U.S. Senator Nathaniel Barksdale Dial, died when Gray was only nine years old.
After her graduation from Columbia College, Gray taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Greenwood County. She was struck by the poverty and lack of education in the area and decided to pursue a graduate degree. Attending both Vanderbilt and Columbia Universities, Gray obtained a master’s degree in political science. She also studied under professors who saw education as a means to promote democracy and equality. She returned to South Carolina determined to work for the betterment of communities and to alleviate the problem of adult illiteracy. Gray established her first night school in Laurens County in 1915. In 1918, she became a field worker for the South Carolina Illiteracy Commission and in 1921 she was named South Carolina Supervisor of Adult Education. She remained in that role until 1946.
Gray tried several approaches to teaching adults including night schools, summer sessions, and educational camps that she called “opportunity schools.” The first opportunity school was established at the Daughters of the American Revolution Camp at Tamassee in Oconee County in 1921. The schools originally accepted white women only, but later admitted men and African Americans. The courses included home economics, Christianity, etiquette, and citizenship. After a long effort, Gray was able to get a portion of the old Columbia Air Base for her school and, in 1947, offered year-round programs there. She retired in 1957 and the school was renamed in her honor.
The Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School served more than 26,000 students by the time of Gray’s death in 1984. Today, it works with at-risk youth. Gray spent her later years volunteering for organizations that helped the disadvantaged. She organized the South Carolina Federation on Aging and continued to fight for equal education for all races and the eradication of poverty. Her portrait hangs in the South Carolina State House.