Orra Gray Langhorne of Harrisonburg—a Remarkable Woman of the 19th Century
Orra Henderson Moore Gray was the daughter of Algernon Sidney Gray and Annie Henderson Gray, born on March 8, 1841 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A member of a prosperous and well-educated slave-holding family with liberal views, she graduated from Hollins Institute (later Hollins University). Her paternal grandfather was Robert Gray, who married Dr. Waterman’s daughter Isabella and became a wealthy landowner. Her father served in the Virginia Convention of 1861 where he opposed secession, later changing his position in order to better represent his constituents. She remained in Virginia during the Civil War and visited ill and wounded soldiers in Harrisonburg, sometimes referred to as “Orra’s Hospital”, in the former Female Academy building on South Main St. A diary she kept during this time does not survive.
On October 14, 1871 Orra Gray married Thomas Nelson Langhorne, a blind businessman from Lynchburg, where they lived and operated a general store. He also owned several properties that she continued to rent to African American and white tenants after his death in 1889. They had no children. By virtue of marriage, she was the aunt of Elizabeth Dabney Langhorne Lewis, also of Lynchburg, who was vice president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia from 1911 to 1920.
Described later by a relative as “a radical by instinct, and a reformer by temperament”, Orra Langhorne started to express her views on postwar reconciliation, suffrage, and African American advancement soon after the Civil War. She published numerous articles in newspapers, and by 1880 she was a regular correspondent with her own byline in the Southern Workman, a publication of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).
Langhorne’s views on racial reconciliation and educational opportunities for African Americans were progressive for the times. Shortly after the Hampton Institute opened, Langhorne wrote to the then-principal Brigadier General Samuel C. Armstrong requesting admission for a family of her former slaves; the boys of the family were granted admission and their mother served in the “girl’s industrial room.” Lucy Frances Simms, a celebrated black teacher in Harrisonburg segregated schools, was also a former slave in the Gray family and a graduate of Hampton Institute.
One of the reforms Langhorne actively supported was woman suffrage, for which she twice submitted petitions to the General Assembly.
Two decades after the short-lived Virginia State Woman Suffrage Association folded, Langhorne revived the campaign for woman suffrage in 1893 by establishing the Virginia Suffrage Society, a state auxiliary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, serving as president of the Virginia branch. Langhorne’s pioneering efforts were recognized nationally. Her involvement led to appearances in Virginia by Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt.
Orra Langhorne died of heart disease on May 6, 1904 and was buried beside the grave of her husband in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg. An obituary in the Southern Workman noted that Langhorne “had the rare courage of her convictions. Her gentle voice and her vigorous pen were at the service of the causes she believed in, whether school improvement, industrial training, temperance, prison reform, women’s advancement, civil service reform, or universal education.”
Orra Langhorne’s name is featured on the Wall of Honor on the Virginia Women’s Monument, located in Capitol Square in Richmond. Her legacy lives on in history.
Historian Charles E. Wynes published a volume of her Southern Workman essays in 1964 with the title, Southern Sketches from Virginia, 1881-1901, Orra Langhorne.
(NOTE: This book is available for purchase at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society Heritage Museum in Dayton, VA. It is $7.00 plus tax. Order it from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Reference: Frances S. Pollard, “Orra Henderson Moore Gray Langhorne (1841-1904), “Dictionary of Virginia Biography”, Library of Virginia, published 2018.
Excerpted by Rosemarie Palmer