Fact Friday 356 - Gray Toole, Barber and Community Leader

Fact Friday 356 - Gray Toole, Barber and Community Leader

Happy Friday!


This week's Fact Friday comes to you from our good friend, Jeffrey Begeal, Chairperson for Social Studies and AP/IB History Teacher at my alma mater, Harding University High School!


Gray J Toole (May 1847 to June 2, 1925)

Barber and Community Leader

From his Ancestry.com family genealogy, his parents were listed as Henry Toole Clark 1808-1874 and Lizinah Lathan born 1830, death date unknown. This information revealed a White father and a Black mother, and all US Census Records declared Gray Toole as Mulatto. Toole left no records of his treatment as a slave. Supposedly, his early life was in Tarboro, Edgecombe County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, Gray moved to Charlotte and opened a barber shop. The shop was located in the Spring’s Building next to the Editorial room of the Daily Times, and Cicero was his partner. (Daily Carolina Times, February 22, 1869).



Gray did not come to Charlotte alone. He had been married to Laura Smith on October 14, 1868 in Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina. (North Carolina Marriage Records, 1741-2011).

They had four children together, Delia, Sidney Henry, Elizabeth and John S.

There was the famous windfall for Toole’s wife, Laura, in 1885 that was a rare case of reparations.  In the Last Will and Testament of her old Mistress in Chapel Hill, Laura was bequeathed 100 acres in Durham and $125 for her years as a slave. The Charlotte newspapers heralded the news and plugged Toole by saying he has always voted the Democratic ticket and now he says that he is elected at last, but in the meantime will continue his business at the old stand. (The Charlotte Observer, November 28, 1885). The comment was telling because the number of law suits over the years from land disputes, criminal complaints, and his divorce proceedings had to have been costly affairs. Several suits lasted years and were appealed to higher courts, delayed, then sometimes given to a jury. Toole hired lawyers and pursued matters to mostly favorable conclusions, and he never filed for bankruptcy.

Although both Gray and Laura had been born slaves and their marriage had been one with difficulties and ended in divorce, as Freedmen in Charlotte, in their first years, they built a successful life.  One advantage was that they could read and write. Twice, Charlotte newspapers indicated that Gray and Laura Toole had letters waiting for them at the Post Office. (The Charlotte Democrat, May 23, 1871 and May 22, 1876.) The Record of Deeds Office for Mecklenburg County has their signatures on land purchases in Charlotte. Toole included reading materials in his barber shop for customers. Gray became known as the polite barber, and he was included on the inaugural ride on The Iron Link Airline Railroad connecting Charlotte to Spartanburg. (The Charlotte Observer, April 2, 1873). Toole grew as a contributing member of the Charlotte Black Business Community and a Civic Leader. In politics, he was a Democrat, which for the times was unusual as most Black men in politics belonged to the Republican Party. Toole’s first civic responsibility was as the elected President of the Yellow Jacket Fire Company for Coloreds. (The Charlotte Observer, July 27, 1873). He would continue his civic duty as President of the Neptune Fire Company for several years.

Yet, with his growing popularity, there was a dark side to Gray Toole. He kept a pistol in his barber shop. He owned a saloon like John T Schenck, and he was in several bar fights. (The Charlotte Observer, October 22, 1874.) He even fought with another barber, A C Monroe (The Charlotte Observer, July 21, 1876). An article, A Night with the Razor Pushers, had both Toole and Schenk charged with brawling at a party in a saloon, but the charges were dismissed, (The Charlotte Observer, December 7, 1878). The pistol, though never wielded by Toole himself, caused harm. Lewis Gray, a fourteen-year-old in Toole’s Barber Shop accidently shot and killed Jones Orr, aged twelve, as they were fooling around with the weapon. (The Southern Home, January 15, 1877). Manuel Johnston, the "colored brush-off-the-gent’man" boy also accidently shot off the pistol but no one was harmed. (The Charlotte Observer, July 31, 1878). Finally, another boy accidently discharged a pistol at Gray Toole’s Barber Shop. Even though no one was harmed, the Magistrate was not likely to be lenient as he had previously sentenced another Black youth to eight years in jail for discharging a pistol that he was not supposed to own, (The Charlotte Observer, May 13, 1884).

It would be a mistake, though, to see Toole’s behavior and his Barber Shop as a dangerous place. On the contrary, over the years it garnered prestige for Toole, and he helped launch the careers of many of his employees. J W Gordon, employed by Toole, opened his own barber shop in the basement under Tiddy’s Book Store. (The Charlotte Observer, October 23, 1879). Jeff Stuart, employed by Toole, went to Philadelphia to join a negro minstrel troupe. (The Charlotte Observer, September 26, 1882). Dick Wright, employed by Toole, opened a chair at A C Monroe’s Tonsorial Parlor. (The Charlotte Observer, July 8, 1883). Jacob Renz, a barber at the Buford House, partnered with Toole to help save his business. (The Charlotte Observer, July 13, 1883). Richard Wright and Melton J Warren, employed by the Renz & Toole Barber Shop, opened their own business at the old stand of A C Monroe. (The Charlotte Observer, February 1, 1884). Dan Gibson, employed by Toole, was required to give a bond for carrying a pistol. Toole provided the bond. (The Charlotte Observer, October 23, 1885). John H Cooper, employed by Toole, went to Hopewell, New Jersey to ply his trade. (The Charlotte News, October 25, 1893).

Toole was lauded over the years for the improvements in his shop. With the construction at the Central Hotel, Toole occupied the Barber shop and was adding bathing rooms for hot and cold baths. (The Charlotte Observer, February 23, 1877). Newspaper advertisements for Toole’s Barber Shop ran from 1877 to 1894 when he sold out and retired. On June 7, 1878, The Charlotte Democrat published a testimonial: Gray Toole is one of the best colored men in the State, and best of all, he attends to his business in person, and we hope is getting rich. In 1882, Toole began on his new barber shop to the storeroom next to the Express Office. He appointed his shaving parlor with elegant equipment, adding three apartments for cold and hot baths. His new advertisement, Baths! Baths! Ran for months in The Charlotte Observer from August 9 1882 into the following year.

In Politics, Toole was a Democrat. He spoke publicly for the first time during the 1876 Presidential race at Miller’s Hall in Charlotte. He said to his fellow Democrats, Black and White, that the prosperity of the black man lay in his co-operation with his white friends and neighbors, as both their interests were one. (The Charlotte Observer, October 28, 1876). A few days later, there was a meeting of the newly organized Vance Colored Democratic Club, and Toole was elected its president. (The Charlotte Observer, November 4, 1876). By November 11, 1876, with the election of Hayes or Tilden in doubt, Toole proposed that the club become more permanent and not just for the presidential campaign period. At the end of his speech, Toole gave an ominous warning to the club members saying they needed to wear badges or medals to gain the protection of the whites against threats of violence from those of their own race. As President of the Colored Democratic Club, Toole tried twice to run for Alderman of Ward 3. Although never elected, he campaigned vigorously. He garnered 34 votes as reported in The Charlotte Observer, May 1883. Toole was able to secure the recommendation of Charlotte’s Alderman and Mayor of his brother, Henry Toole of Rock Hill, South Carolina, for the position of Recorder of Deeds for the District Of Columbia. (The Charlotte Observer, April 18, 1893.) Toole would run again for Alderman that year and garnered 63 votes in the May elections. Most Black men who voted in Charlotte were registered Republicans and led by competent men like John Thomas Schenck. Elections during Reconstruction in North Carolina were often contentious to the point of physical intimidation and violence mostly against Black voting males. Toole also had the opportunity to speak with Governor Zebulon Vance when the latter attended a meeting in Charlotte. (The Charlotte Observer, December 30, 1876.)

On several occasions, Toole, as well as other Black barbers in Charlotte, were charged with shaving on Sunday and hauled into the Mayor’s Court to pay fines. Even the reading material in Black barber shops became a target when in 1885, Mayor Maxwell visited the city’s barbers and ordered the ban of the Police Gazette. This ban was in accordance with an ordinance adopted by the towns’ Aldermen against obscene literature. (The Charlotte Observer, February 5, 1885). Yet Toole was also praised as a barber with the gift of conversation. He updated his store twice over the years and added electricity in 1887.

Despite these legal challenges, Toole remained engaged in the business, military. political, social, and sporting circles of Charlotte. For his civic duty, as mentioned Toole was also the President of the Neptune Fire Company for several years. He over saw the inspections with the Fire Chief, had demonstrations of his crew, and held social events with other fire departments from North Carolina. (The Charlotte Observer, September 10, 1875). He prepared inspections, parades, gave testimonials, and wore an honored belt granted in a competition for the Neptune Fire Company.  When the Charlotte public school committee debated over one of two geography books, the older Maury text or the newer Eclectic text, Toole was invited to give his opinion. Toole also served on Federal grand juries and on juries of inquest.

The first public record for Gray J Toole in a military role was his Civil War Record. He enlisted on August 22, 1864 as a Private in Company E US Colored Troops 4th Infantry for the Union side under Maryland Volunteers. He mustered out September 5, 1865. (US, Civil War Soldier and Profiles, 1861-1865). Toole recalled later in life that he had enlisted when he was seventeen in Newbern, NC and was wounded in the foot but never granted a pension. (The Charlotte Observer, April 28, 1898.) Governor Alfred Moore Scales in the summer of 1887 commissioned the officers of the Colored Military Company organized in Charlotte for the State Guard. Gray Toole was made Captain.

Toole became one of the leading Black businessmen in Charlotte. He had formed several partnerships over time with others including Ferry Morehead, Anthony Rivers, and John T Schenck. In Charlotte, a Colored Men’s Social Club was formed, the Queen City Club at the corner of A and Trade Streets, and Toole was elected its first president. S A Cowles was elected Secretary, Thad Tate was elected Treasurer, and the Board of Directors consisted of Thomas Moore, Milus Thompson, and E W Butler. (The Charlotte Observer, April 4, 1890). This club catered to the elite Black businessmen of Charlotte. It disbanded in a few years when charges were made that it was a gambling society, and the court fined the members.

In 1892, Toole became the manager of the Quicksteps, a Charlotte Colored Baseball team. Toole claimed his Quicksteps can best any team from Florida to Washington, so Richmond is numbered with “best” right now. (The Charlotte Observer, June 29, 1892). Also, the next year, Toole would reorganize the Quicksteps roster. According to The Charlotte Observer on May 13, 1893, his new team included:

Now Toole was noted as the tonsorial artist and baseball plutocrat especially after he organized a second baseball team, The Charlotte Grays. (The Charlotte Observer, August 8, 1893). It even became humorous when The Charlotte News published an article, The Dangers of a Baseball Barber, which claimed a client got a quality job as long as they did not talk baseball with Toole.  If the client did converse about baseball, Toole’s enthusiasm kept him trimming the client until he looked like a close clipped ball player. (September 28, 1893)

Toole also remarried to Charlotte Jackson on September 12, 1894. This was the same year Gray Toole sold his Barber Shop to Phil Maltry. September and October of 1895 proved very difficult for Gray and Charlotte. Their house and four others owned by Toole burned. Charlotte broke her leg carrying a hall rack out of the residence. Laura Toole appeared, danced, clapped, and shouted at her former husband’s misfortune. (Mecklenburg Times, October 3, 1895) She and others would later be accused of arson, but, at their trial, the evidence did not sustain the charges. Toole vowed to rebuild, and went back into business, first at the Kendrick Building on North College Street, but then moved across the street to the Watts Building. (The Charlotte Observer, March 4, 1897).

Toole’s last public service in Charlotte was to organize a Colored Infantry Unit for the Spanish American War.  In April of 1898, he recruited 65 men. The Mecklenburg Black Boys made up another volunteer company from Charlotte. It was reported that Charlotte had mustered three full White Companies and two full Negro Companies. (The Charlotte Observer, May 26, 1898). The length of the war itself was short, and Toole as the Captain had arranged for their transport to Fort Macon. The troops returned to Charlotte in February 1899.  Toole himself would leave Charlotte and relocate to Fayetteville, North Carolina. From the 1900 to 1920 US Census Records, he was a merchant of that city. Charlotte Toole, a well-respected nurse, died in 1922. Gray Toole died in 1925 and there was no obituary in the local paper. Even his grave is unmarked. It seemed as if after Charlotte, he wanted a quitter life in Fayetteville and anonymity.


Until next week!


Jeffrey Begeal
Chairperson for Social Studies
AP/IB History Teacher
Harding University High School
Charlotte, NC 28208


Email chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

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