The Life of Charlotte Ray

Published 19th July 2017

By Nadia Dileone, First 100 Years Student Ambassador

Charlotte Ray (1850 – 1911) was the first African American female lawyer in the United States. She became the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Ray deserves to be remembered because she fought to overcome the countless obstacles set in her path due to gender inequality and racial discrimination. Her admission was used as a precedent by women in other states who sought to be called to the bar.

Ray attended the Institution for the Education of Coloured Youth in Washington, D.C., one of a few places where a black woman could attain a proper education. Her father, Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was an important figure in the abolitionist movement and firmly believed that his daughters, as much as his sons, should have access to education.

Upon graduating, she taught at Howard University. Shortly after, Ray decided to apply to the law programme at the University, deliberately using her initials in applying for the course. The reason for this is unknown but some have suggested that this was a tactic that she had used to hide her gender, since the university would not tolerate female applicants. She successfully secured a place in the programme.

At Howard University, Ray was described as an ‘apt scholar’ during her law degree. She received her degree in 1872 as the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law. In the same year, she was called to the D.C. bar. By this point, Ray had already created history for women, especially black African women. However, Ray continued to break old norms to become the first woman to argue cases in front of the US Supreme Court.

Ray decided to open her own law firm, specialising in commercial law. She had a passion for law and the intelligence to solve many disputes. However, the prejudice she faced meant that she could no longer hold onto her business. Few clients were willing to have a black African woman to represent their case.

In 1879, Ray became a teacher in New York and got married. She continued to pursue her passion to change the world and was actively involved in the women’s suffragette movement. Ray decided that it was not only her own life that need to see change but the generations of women after her who could not lead the same lives plagued by inequality. Ray was also adamant that women of ‘colour’ achieve a legal status, and pursuing these objectives by joining the National Association of Coloured Women’s Club.

In conclusion, although Ray only had been in the legal profession for a few years, she became a role model for African American women lawyers. She was a trailblazer who not only paved the way for women’s entry into the legal profession but fought for a more equality society free of gender and racial discrimination. For these reasons, Ray’s story should not go unheard.