Editor’s Note: This profile is the first in a series of stories on Huntsville’s hidden figures in celebration of Black History Month.
William Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
That could be said of the late Charles L. Ray, Jr., one of Huntsville’s native sons.
Raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother’s passing, Ray was guided by their teachings and strong discipline. They saw both a sense of duty and splendor in his young spirit.
His early years were a dress rehearsal for the many activities and successes he would experience later in the Huntsville community.
Ray’s early schooling began in local schools and culminated when he finished Councill Training School as class president and salutatorian in 1953. There, he confirmed his leadership abilities and keen intelligence.
“Charles was a natural leader,” said Dr. Mattie Thomas, Ray’s close friend and classmate. “Whenever our class held elections, we felt he had to be our president. Charles always accepted the responsibilities we gave him.”
Charles later enrolled in Morehouse College and completed a 3 ½ year tour with the U.S. Army before being honorably discharged in 1957. He returned to Huntsville and enrolled at Alabama A&M College (now University) and earned bachelor’s degrees in history and English. He later got his master’s in mortuary science from Jefferson State Community College.
Armed with his teaching certificate, Charles became a professional educator.
Charles left teaching in 1965 to become assistant director of the Huntsville/Madison County Community Action Agency. Soon after, he was promoted to executive director.
He never lost his passion for teaching, however. This was demonstrated by the many Black History Month programs he spearheaded as part of the Commanding General’s civilian staff at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM).
In each position, he excelled because he interpreted his part, engaged in effective dialogue and purposeful action. He also brought many notable African-American speakers to the City, including Dick Gregory, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson and scores of others.
Simultaneously, he was a successful entrepreneur as president and owner of Nelms Memorial Funeral Home. A model employee in the government sector, he soon became the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer at AMCOM and opened many doors for the African-American community.
And the beat goes on
Ray played numerous parts in his career, but his performance as a community volunteer was one of his most commendable.
He served on the Redstone Village Board of Directors, the Harris Home for Children, Huntsville/Madison County Railroad Authority and others. He was appointed by former Mayor Steve Hettinger to the inaugural Huntsville Human Relations Commission and served on the Interfaith Commission Services.
However, Ray made his most profound imprint on the Redstone Federal Credit Union. Appointed to the Advisory Committee in 1977, he was elected Chairman of the Board in 1983, a position he held for 28 years. Under his leadership, the credit union expanded its facilities and provided financial services to more than 326,000 members.
Today, Redstone Federal Credit Union is one of the 25 largest federal credit unions in the country with $5.5 billion dollars in assets.
“Throughout his many years on Redstone’s Board of Directors, Charles Ray, Jr., never lost sight of why we are here,” said Joe Newberry, CEO of Redstone Federal Credit Union. “He kept our philosophy of people helping people of modest means a priority.”
A transformational leader
While Ray’s successes were many, his generosity was reminiscent of Luke 12:48: “Unto whom much is given, much is required.” Throughout the Huntsville community, people attest to his giving spirit.
Ray provided financial assistance to many families in need and supported numerous fundraising efforts. He helped churches purchase vans, improve their facilities, etc.
As a longtime member of the Board of Trustees at Union Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, he helped acquire land to build the current church and establish the Charles L. Ray Endowed Scholarship for academically talented and disadvantaged students.
“(Ray) was a transformational leader and he focused on improving the conditions and status of oppressed people locally, regionally and nationally,” said Dorothy W. Huston, PhD., founder and CEO of Technology Management Training Group, Inc. in Huntsville. “He was indeed one of Huntsville’s most recognized African American citizens whose well-lived life continues to impact our community today.”