CONTACT: Matt Maisel
Director of Communications, City of Harrisburg
(717) 255-7295
[email protected]

April 19, 2023

HARRISBURG – Reverend Dr. William Gray, a man whose larger-than-life personality and toughness was surpassed only by his heart to help others, will be honored this weekend at the site of some of his most impactful work.

The corners of 6th and Woodbine Streets and 6th and Forrest Streets will be renamed “Rev. Billy Gray Way” on Saturday, April 22. Harrisburg City Council will host the event in front of the Camp Curtin YMCA, beginning at 2 p.m.

“It’s really important to talk about the history in Harrisburg so it’s not forgotten,” City Council Vice President Ausha Green said in October, when Council passed the resolution to rename the street in honor of Rev. Gray. “I’m born and raised here, so any chance we get the chance the honor the people who came before us, and teach our children, we can keep the history of Harrisburg alive. This street name and sign will spark someone to ask ‘Who is that?’”

Rev. Gray was a longtime youth director and swim instructor at the Camp Curtin Y, then the Forrest Street YMCA, working with the organization for more than 20 years. He served as the Executive Director for Youth Urban Services until his retirement in 1992.

Dr. Gray passed away in 2013, at the age of 84.

“He was an icon in the Black community. When you looked for leaders, you look for Billy Gray,” said Mayor Wanda R.D. Williams.

Born in Harrisburg on January 28, 1929, Gray was the second of three siblings. As the middle child, he had to fight for everything that came his way, sometimes even literally. He would tell stories growing up about sometimes having to fight his way home.

That toughness also gave young William, who would affectionally come to be known as “Billy”, the ability to win over any crowd he came in contact with. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was the sharpest dressed kid in the neighborhood, a trait he carried with him through the rest of his life.

“He was the sharpest dressed Black man in Harrisburg,” remembered friend Jerry Williams, who looked up to Rev. Gray as a mentor growing up in Uptown. “It did not matter where he was going; he was always donned with a derby. You never saw Billy in down clothes.”

If his passion in later years was fashion, he lived his early years to fight. Gray was 16 when he took up a passion for boxing. He lied about his age so he could compete competitively. However, saying he was 18 also led to him getting drafted into the military. Billy joined the Army and fought in World War II as a Military Policeman. He continued to fight professionally in Europe during the war, and when he returned home, re-enrolled at John Harris High School to get his high school diploma.

Rev. Gray was a mainstay during the Civil Rights Movement. He marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and became a spiritual leader for more than a half-century as Pastor and Deacon at the Second Baptist Church of Harrisburg.

“Back then, Harrisburg was still very racially divided,” Mr. Williams remembered. “We didn’t have employment or housing. We still had to sit in the back of the bus. Billy embraced that. He helped us get into school. He solicited people throughout town to give us a chance at jobs. He opened those doors for Black youth in Harrisburg.”

Gray received numerous awards and certificates for his lifetime of community service work. Along with being a decorated swim instructor, he helped hundreds of children prepare for SATs and college enrollments. Harrisburg Area Community College presented Rev. Gray with an honorary Doctorate degree in Public Service, and former Pennsylvania Congressman George Gekas helped honor his community service in the House of Representatives.