Julia Ray. 107 Years.
Julia Ray, African American business pioneer, turns 107 this week.
Maya Carter, Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE — The year Julia G. Ray was born, Woodrow Wilson was president, Charlie Chaplin made his film debut and a burly left-hander started playing baseball with the Boston Red Sox.
That would be Babe Ruth. In 1914.
While “The Babe” went on to leave his mark on professional baseball with 714 home runs and a Hall of Fame career, Julia Ray lived a quiet yet extraordinary life in Asheville.
Ask those who know her, and they’ll tell you her time here is worthy of life’s hall of fame, especially when it comes to the impact on her community.
And unlike Babe Ruth, Ray is still at it. She turns 107 on Oct. 28, which the city of Asheville has proclaimed “Julia G. Ray Day.”
Dressed in a red sweater — her favorite color — Ray sat on the couch in her daughter’s home in Arden, where she lives now, and talked about her life and longevity.
“You ask the Lord to bless you each day,” Ray said. “I can’t help but say it’s just amazing when I wake up and feel just as good today as I did yesterday.”
Mrs. Ray had lunch at Benne on Eagle Street Oct. 27 with family and friends, and she planned to spend her birthday thanking those who took time out to wish her well.
As far as the “secret” to her long life, Ray said there’s no great mystery.
“I have no secrets, other than just trying to do the daily things as they are scheduled to be done,” Ray said. “If I do that, I know God knows that I’m doing the best that I can.”
‘Just a little country girl from McDowell County’
Born Julia Pauline Greenlee on Oct. 28, 1914, Ray married Jesse Ray Sr. in 1935 and embarked on a career in the funeral business that lasted until 2019.
The city’s proclamation gives a good rundown of her achievements, noting that Mrs. Ray is “one of the pioneers of black business owners in Asheville with establishments on Eagle Street dating back to 1936, including a cleaners and a funeral home that she opened with her husband, Jesse Ray, Sr.” Julia Ray was the first African American to serve on the Asheville YWCA Board of Directors, the first African American to serve on the UNC Asheville Board of Trustees, and the first African American woman to serve on the Board of Mission Hospital, the proclamation continues.
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Told of the city’s proclamation, Mrs. Ray said, “Frankly, I’m speechless.”
Mrs. Ray also served on the first Advisory Board for the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville. The university also awarded her an honorary doctor of letters in 2018, and it has a family- endowed scholarship in her name.
Julia and Jesse Ray also raised four children, including Jesse Ray Jr., who at age 74 continues to operate Ray Funeral & Cremation Service in Asheville.
“I think of course my Dad was more physically in the community, as far as being seen, because of his business and then his own community projects he had going on,” Jesse Ray Jr. said. “My mother kind of operated a little differently — she’s always been kind of quiet but focused, and she made her contribution that way.”
Jesse Ray Sr. died in August 1994.
Mrs. Ray never sought the limelight, but she’s always had an incredible work ethic and a strong will. Jesse Ray describes her as “strong, both mentally and physically.”
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“If you ask her about herself in her earlier days, she would say, ‘I’m just a little country girl from McDowell County,'” Jesse Ray said. “She was raised by her grandmother on a farm. My mother grew up working, because her mother died at a young age and her father sent her back to North Carolina from News York to be raised by her grandmother.”
Julia was 14 at the time and had to make a major adjustment from New York City to the tiny foothills town of Marion.
Julia met Jesse Ray Sr. in Asheville, where Julia’s aunt lived and worked as a cook and caterer. Julia Greenlee worked with her aunt, who lived down the street from Jesse Ray Sr.’s mother.
“As the story goes, my Grandmother Ray told Daddy there was a pretty little girl down the street he needed to go see,” Jesse Ray Jr. said. “So he did. They were married in 1935.”
Darin Waters, a retired history professor from UNC Asheville, remembers the Rays well from his days growing up in the Shiloh neighborhood in South Asheville. The Rays lived for years above their funeral home but later built a home in Shiloh.
Waters considered the Rays an extension of his own family in many ways.
“That was back in the day when not only your parents would tell you how to behave,” Waters said. “When you would see Mrs. Ray, nine times out of 10 she would say, ‘Are you behaving?'”
Waters describes Mrs. Ray’s career and life as “path-breaking.” Born in a time when women could not even vote — that didn’t come until 1920 — Julia Ray navigated a society that was decidedly separate and unequal for African Americans.
But she lived her life without complaining, and with a quiet determination, Waters said. Ray’s generation had a strong commitment to education, to bettering oneself through hard work.
“They just had a very different outlook,” Waters said. “I would say the outlook was hopeful, and not only hopeful but determined. Education played a key role in helping to fuel that sense of hope and that kind of determined spirit to make things to happen.”
Averting a robbery
During World War II, Jesse Ray Sr. went overseas as a civilian employee of the army, working to return deceased Americans soldiers to their homeland. During that time, Julia Ray ran the funeral business and a dry cleaners owned by Jesse Ray Sr. and his brother.
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Julia Ray lives in Arden with the oldest of their four children, Wilma Bledsoe. The couple also had three sons, Jesse, William and Charles Ray, all of whom, along with Bledsoe, went on to successful careers in business or academia.
Bledsoe spent 60 years in Michigan, retiring as vice president of Oakland University, returning to the Asheville area two and a half years ago. Charles Ray, who lives in Apex, worked in operations with American Airlines for 45 years, while William Ray spent most of his career in international contract compliance with IBM. He lives in Wake Forest.
The elder Rays imparted the importance of education and hard work early on in their children’s lives. Bledsoe, 84, recalled that she started learning to cook at age 9, as her mother had a second child then — and Mrs. Ray had high expectations of her children.
Julia Ray would make a list of chores each day.
“You would be a diligent, good child trying to scratch (items off the list), and the next morning it would be as long as it was the previous day,” Bledsoe said, noting they lived above the funeral home during most of her childhood.
Respect for the Rays ran deep on “The Block,” the historic African American business locale in downtown Asheville. Bledsoe remembers how at one point a rumor went around that the cleaners Mrs. Ray was watching over was going to be robbed.
“One of the ladies of the night came down, sat up on the counter in the cleaners and pulled her skirt up just so her switchblade would show,” Bledsoe said. “And Mama said to her, ‘Get down from there. What are you doing?’ She said, ‘It’s all right, baby.’ And she saw the guys who were going to do the robbery going back and forth, back and forth. They never came in.”
At the funeral home, Jesse Ray Sr. was a licensed embalmer and funeral director, and Julia Ray was a licensed funeral director. The North Carolina Funeral Directors Association recognized Julia Ray when she was 105 as the oldest living licensed funeral director in North Carolina, presenting her with a lifetime achievement award.
Work was always a part of her life, and Mrs. Ray said it’s important to realize no one is going to do your job for you.
“If you’re not expecting to have good results, be on top, know the time to be there, when to close to come home – all those things are not going to happen for you automatically or with somebody pressing a button,” Ray said. “That’s my feeling. I can’t say it’s 100% right, but it’s the way I feel about it.”
In the early 1980s, Julia Ray also served on the founding committee for the Goombay Festival, an annual celebration of African American heritage and culture held on the Block. Mrs. Ray formed a cleanup committee, but she also encouraged attendance.
The Rays endowed the auditorium of the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville. Initially branded as “The Young Men’s Institute,” today’s YMI Cultural Center is “one of the oldest, most unique and beautiful Black cultural centers in the United States,” Jesse Ray Jr. said. For a while prior to attending mortuary school in Chicago, Jesse Ray Sr. lived at the YMI, now a landmark Asheville building that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Besides her civic involvements, Julia Ray is also a talented artist, excelling at stitching, pottery, embroidery and framing, Jesse Ray Jr. said. Julia Ray’s handiworks “adorn all our homes and are treasured gifts to friends,” he said.
Bledsoe noted that her mother made her wedding gown.
Coming of age during the Great Depression and living through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the Space Age, the Computer Age and more, Julia Ray certainly has seen more in her lifetime than most Americans can even dream of. But she’s always stayed humble, content to work hard and help her community.
“I wouldn’t say Mama looked at herself as being a great or outstanding person,” Jesse Ray Jr. said. “I think her coming from humble beginnings, she saw herself as a person willing to help others be better and improve their lot.”
Considering the scope of Julia Ray’s life, Waters said the word that comes to mind is “phenomenal.”
“She is essentially a 20th century witness,” Waters said. “We often refer to the 20th century as ‘the American century,’ and she lived through it.”
Historians refer to a “crucible of race” when it comes to the civil rights struggles, and Waters notes the country has been through many such tests in that regard over the past century.
“She’s lived through many of those crucibles, and she’s done it with so much grace and dignity,” Waters said. “And I think there’s so much value in that.”
Mrs. Ray is mobile with a walker, and while “she has some challenges,” as Jesse Ray says, she’s still mentally alert and “can carry on a good conversation.”
“One of her sayings is, ‘Getting old ain’t easy,” Jesse Ray said with a laugh.
But Julia Ray has never been one to dwell on the negatives. Everyone makes mistakes here and there, she said, but you pick up and move on — and remember to thank God every day.
“So far life has shown me that you usually get out what you put in,” Ray said.
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