Maurice Russell Grey: Esra Realty Firm’s Third-generation leader 
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Maurice Russell Grey: Esra Realty Firm’s Third-generation leader 

Maurice Russell Grey shown with author Arnelle Williams. All Photos: Rose Cherubin

TV producer, screenwriter, and media mogul Shonda Rhimes may have popularized the surname Grey because of her hit show Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present). But there is a real-life Grey family, who for three generations has continued to make a difference in real estate in Harlem, New York.

Maurice Russell Grey is the current Chief Executive Officer of Esra Realty. He is part of the third generation of real estate brokers. Maurice, a tall man with a cordial presence, welcomed me into the meeting room. It was warm. Rays of sun light beamed through the withdrawn shades, exuding an essence of regality. As I listened to Maurice’s story, I realized it was a remarkable recount of historical permanence, family legacy, and a Caribbean-American perspective on the makings of the American Dream.

Maurice is a Harlemite; he was born in Harlem Hospital and raised on its most notable streets. However, his background is Caribbean. His mother was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to the United States for college. His father, Maurice Edward Grey was born in Harlem, and his maternal family originated from Guyana. We bonded on the fact that both our families are Guyanese.

Maurice could not converse about the family’s successes without first delving into its history. His grandmother, Sarah Edwards was one of the founders of Esra Realty, which is an acronym for Edwards Sisters Realty Associates. Sarah and her older sisters, Millicent and Lucille immigrated from what was then British Guiana in the 1920s. Millicent embarked on the journey first and sent for her sisters. They opened the real estate business in 1925 to help Caribbeans find housing. “Three ladies who had a vision that Harlem was about to change,” Maurice says. They also had an employment business called Edwards-Bowen Employment Agency to help Caribbeans find jobs.

Maurice expounds on the family business.

The company name was changed from Edwards Sisters Realty Associates to Esra by Maurice and his cousin Aden Seraile—co-owner whose grandmother is also Sarah Edwards—because during public gatherings people expected to see three sisters. Two grown men did not fit the image. However, they kept the legacy of these accomplished Guyanese women. Sarah’s sister Lucille became the fourth Black woman to graduate from NYU law and the first Black woman barred in New York State. Until their sister Millicent’s untimely death, Lucille was the real estate attorney and Sarah was the real estate manager. Together they bought and sold several homes in Harlem in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.

In awe of Esra Realty’s legacy, I asked Maurice what it was about this firm that drew him in. “I backed my way back in. I had these grand dreams of my own,” he said, to my surprise. “Wall Street was big, and everyone was going to Wall Street making all of this money.” At that time, in the late 90s, Maurice mentioned the recession and how difficult it was to find jobs unless you had a finance degree or IVY league background. “If you were Black and you were coming out without one of those things, it was very tough to crack that circle,” he said. The circle is a reference to a predominately white Wall Street environment. It was a rude awakening for Maurice who graduated from Rutgers University in 1996, majoring in political science and African-American Studies; he values his undergrad experience because of how much it helped him “build his character and self-worth,” but he wondered what he wanted to do.

Even growing up in a real estate family, Maurice remarks how he “didn’t fully understand the power of real estate.” He likens this notion to human nature, saying “When you grow up with something, you don’t appreciate it.” Especially, in the 70s and 80s, Maurice let me know that Harlem was not “booming” like it is now. There were “a lot of abandoned buildings, degradation, no one was eager to move to Harlem at those times.” He recalls his father struggling to “keep the business afloat for many years because the perception of Harlem is not what it is now. More people were moving out than moving in.” I continue to listen to Maurice as he shares: “I remember going to sitings with him as he showed Brownstones in the 80s; he was pretty much begging people to buy $200,000 and sometimes less than that.”

Maurice not only understood the challenges his father faced but also the struggles of those aiming for homeownership. There were a lot of obstacles: the down payment, high-interest rates, redlining, and discriminatory lending practices. Maurice adds, “specifically in Harlem.” Harlem didn’t grow the way it should have. With redlining, Maurice gives a fictional example that sheds light on the reality of marketing homes in certain communities. He says “Suppose Harlem starts on 110 street. A brownstone on 105 Street or 98 Street with the same dimensions as something in Harlem, you’re able to finance that. However, once you cross over, your financing criteria change. They are asking for a higher down payment or saying you have a higher likelihood of foreclosure.” With this example, Maurice makes the case that perception has always mattered. It is what creates generational wealth.

According to Maurice, the practices of red-lining and predatory lending weren’t confined to Harlem but occurred in most Black neighborhoods, and when talking about the wealth gap in real estate, he says it isn’t “accidental.” He admits part of the wealth gap is because of a lack of financial education, but a lot has to do with discriminatory practices and even deed restrictions. 

Maurice says, there are some places in New York State where if you were “Black or Latina you were not legally allowed to buy the property.” He cites the Ridgway vs. Cockburn case (1937) that occurred in Edgemont Hills, New York. A light-skinned Caribbean woman, Pauline T. Cockburn, was sued by her white neighbor Mrs. Marion R. Ridgway because of a racial deed covenant attached to neighborhood properties. The racial deed covenant stated, “No parcels shall ever be leased, sold, rented, conveyed or given to Negroes or any persons of the Negro race or blood, except that colored servants may be maintained on the premises.” In short, if you were a person of color, you were only welcomed into the neighborhood as domestic servants. Unaware of the deed a year prior, the Cockburns, Pauline and her husband Joshua, both of Caribbean descent, bought and built their home in Edgemont for $20,000. Although the Cockburns had an excellent defense team, Arthur Garfield Hays and Thurgood Marshall—who was destined to become a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—they lost the case.

Racial deed restrictions were not the only barriers. Maurice recalls how his own Caribbean immigrant family also faced challenges in purchasing homes from homeowners who used de facto discriminatory practices. The first-generation family eventually achieved success, at one point owning a brownstone on Strivers Row, an enclave of brownstones famous for housing Harlem’s elite politicians and successful artists. They then looked to acquire property in Westchester. They “bought” a home in a town called Hasting-On Hudson. They had a cross burned on their front lawn. Maurice recalled how his family was able to buy properties by fronting white buyers “because if you showed up as Black buyer that was it.”

Aden Seraile co-owner and Maurice outside Esra Realty’s offices.


The powerful impact of his family buying in once exclusively white neighborhoods is that it allowed other Black families to be the first to move there. They influenced neighborhoods in Westchester and Southampton, and Maurice says “Some of these families are still there today.”

During our interview Maurice’s aunt, Ramona Grey-Harris, comes into the meeting room. He introduces me to this beautiful, medium-height woman with short-cropped hair and glasses. Maurice says she is part of the second-generation family and their historian. Ramona reminded Maurice of business, and it was great to witness two generations together. It felt like a historic moment in my eyes. She’d just retired in January 2023. The second-generation was Ramona, Juliette, Maurice Edward Grey, and his cousin Aden’s mother, Janette. Ramona is the lone survivor.

I finally asked Maurice what was the turning point that allowed him to accept his family business as his own. He recalls a time he interviewed with a bank. When asked where he saw himself in five years, he said branch manager. Maurice received feedback that stated, “he doesn’t want to start at the bottom; he may not be one to follow directions.” These statements made him realize that if being ambitious was perceived as bad, then he didn’t need to be in that room. He noted the interviewer was Black, which I interpreted that experience as internalized racial gatekeeping– this belief that there can “only be one of us.” Maurice says, “Don’t let someone determine where you should be or that you shouldn’t ask for anything; you should rather strike out on your own.” This experience allowed him to see that his family’s business is a vehicle through which he can flex his entrepreneurial skills. This was the opportunity.

Interestingly, his father did not openly encourage him to follow in his footsteps. His father did not see huge profits in the ’70s and ’80s but was grateful he had enough to keep afloat. “The focus went away from growing to just sustaining to survive,” Maurice said. Yet his father and family always preached about Harlem’s potential and the wisdom of buying there. Maurice noted that the location is perfect – right by Jersey, Queens, Westchester, and Downtown Manhattan. But, socially—the drug crisis, the violence characteristic of impoverished communities with limited opportunities, buildings falling due to lack of maintenance—made it incredibly difficult to market Harlem as a place for a family to live. “Mentioning Harlem during those times was not met with positivity,” he said. However, the firm’s potential to not just survive, but also grow and sustain itself, came during the beginnings of a Harlem turnaround.

Bill Clinton moving into an office space in Harlem was a “big deal,” from a marketing perspective Maurice says. 

It helped transform the negative perception of Harlem. Maurice recalls showing homes and everyone wanting to know where Clinton’s office was located. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, New York’s version of programs to spur urban growth in depressed communities around the country, was also helpful. For Maurice, it took taking seminar classes, joining The Greater Harlem Estate Real Estate Board, and seeing people look like him buying and selling property, to get him excited about a Harlem turnaround.

In 2023 this Harlem turnaround made someone like me, a true Brooklynite, venture to Harlem for The Apollo’s annual Festival of Arts & Ideas. The event, “[at] The Intersection” was curated by Ta-Nehesi Coates. It featured many speakers, authors, artists, and chefs talking about their experiences. Maurice told me that his wife, Tasha Lily Grey, was also in attendance. Perhaps we brushed shoulders without realizing it. 

Maurice tells me that Harlem has always attracted people from all walks of life. His buyer’s clientele leans more toward white, Asian, mixed-race couples, and nonheteronormative couples. He believes it shows a more diverse and accepting attitude of Harlem, a “Renaissance” that is happening, rather than “gentrification,” a word he is intentional about not using because, from his lens, it is very complicated. Ultimately, Maurice wants to see more Black home ownership and developing Black intergenerational wealth, two topics he is very passionate about. “I know how important they are,” he said. However, Maurice states that there is “diversity value, there is value not growing up in a bubble.”

Maurice’s vision for Esra Realty includes teaching people the value of owning—and one avenue is through real estate. “Ninety percent of millionaires are created through real estate,” he said, emphasizing the need to educate people about owning, building and developing. 

Maurice discusses the importance of networking and attending events because “you never know whom you might meet and what information you may get.” 

He notes that Black people were “conditioned to rent,” and there is a reason for these setbacks. Historically, Black people in the United States were not allowed to own or be educated.

When Black homeowners want to sell their homes race plays a role. Maurice offers a stark example–when a Black homeowner removed all signs of Black art or photography, the appraisal of the property went up by $400,000. Another person in Brooklyn did the same thing to his brownstone and his appraisal went up $1 million. These are “game-changing numbers.” This perception speaks to the society we live in; that a Black person has less value than a white person. “A Black person makes 80 percent less than a white person with the same credentials,” Maurice says, and adds that women face the same discrimination. “So what does that mean? They are saying that women and Black people are worth less than a white man.”

Maurice believes the recipe for change goes beyond hard work alone. Successful people rely on someone to help them get through barriers. Maurice wants to make sure that Esra Realty is there, breaking barriers and “holding the door for as many people as possible.” Currently, the company’s business includes property management, development, and private lending. He says real estate is a viable option for achieving the American Dream.

Maurice is a brilliant, well-resourced, and ambitious man who knows his African-American and his family’s Caribbean history. They inform his leadership, which began three generations ago from Guyanese sisters Millicent, Lucille, and Sarah who had a vision.

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