Charlotte Ray: fact and fiction

Published 12th March 2018
Written by Mark Pallis

In 1873, Charlotte Ray became the first African American woman lawyer in America. She set up her own firm and began what a contemporary called “active practice”. Then, just four years later, “on account of prejudice, was not able to obtain sufficient legal business” and shut up shop.

And that’s almost all we know about her life. Someone so seminal, such a trailblazer and we can’t even answer some of the most basic questions about her, such as, what was she like, what sort of cases did she work on, who were her clients, or why she quit?

Charlotte’s world:

150 years ago there was a spirit of innovation in the air, with more patents being filed in the late 1800s than at almost any other point in history; a sense of civic pride with ambitious social schemes and private societies springing up for the betterment of everyone; and mass immigration of a million people a year. Diversity, freedom, and the rule of law powered rapid growth and was making America ‘great’.

Washington DC was one of the most diverse cities in America, with the largest proportion of African American residents at 33%. It was the first to free slaves and had a policy of welcoming freed slaves at a time when other states didn’t permit newly freed men and women to stay. The white residents also comprised a sizeable proportion of Germans and Russians, not to mention Italians, Syrians and Chinese. There was a mix of some legal equality but practical segregation: the few existing laws mandated segregation in the public schools and recreation facilities, but not in the streetcars and public libraries. But the mindset was one of separateness. For example, real estate developers created areas for African Americans like Ivy City – where plots of land were sold off but no roads or running water was provided – and built fashionable gated white communities like Le Droit park – gated to keep the unwanted ones out.

Women faced significant barriers too. They could not vote – a supreme court decision of 1875 had made that explicit. Some states took steps to prevent women from becoming lawyers leading to another supreme court case where the judge ruled against women, saying “Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.

If we rewind back to the 1870s, Charlotte is in her early 20s. I imagine her this way: like anyone of her age, she thinks of herself as modern. She sees the world changing around her: the civil war is over, slavery has ended, new laws about equality are being written, and big new symbols of freedom and liberty are being erected. I see Charlotte as an optimist. Someone who believes in the new laws that she sees and has high hopes for the future. She’s got to be pretty determined – she was one of the first women to graduate in law and the first to be called to the DC bar. Did she try to get a job in an established firm I wonder? Was she rebuffed? Is that why she set up on her own? In terms of her family, we don’t know much: she was one of seven children; her father, Charles B Ray had been on the sharp end of racial prejudice as a student and went on to own a boot store, a periodical and practice as a Minister and journalist.

Who might she have known?

Frederick Douglass
A former slave, turned newspaper magnate, Frederick Douglass was a powerful voice for African Americans. We know that he celebrated Charlotte’s graduation in his own newspaper The New National Era by printing an article proudly stating that Charlotte E. Ray is, ‘the first colored lady in the world to graduate in law’ and also that he ran adverts for her. So I feel it’s pretty fair to assume that they must have met. Perhaps Douglass and Charlotte’s father were friends? Perhaps Douglass was some kind of a mentor to Charlotte, finding her new clients through his contacts and using his influence to battle her foes behind the scenes.

William H White
Charlotte must have known, or known of, William H White. Tall, strong and brave, he was one of DC’s first African American policemen. According to newspaper reports from the time, William was so fearless in upholding the law, he even arrested US President Grant for speeding on horseback the day after a child was run down. President Grant took it in his stride, paid the fine, and even ended up becoming a friend to William. William was known to drink and I wonder whether Charlotte might have used him as someone with their ear to the ground – a source of tips and inside info. I also think that he would have been a very different male role model from Charlotte’s father.

Boss Shepherd
The ‘Father of modern DC” was at the height of his powers when Charlotte began her practice. Questions have been asked about the degree to which he was a genuine friend to DC’s African American community and it seems that he would do pretty much whatever was necessary to consolidate his power. His fall from grace saw him investigated for financial misconduct and for doing favours to his political allies. He was involved in transforming DC through an ambitious series of public works, one of which was flattening Northern Liberties Market — an eyesore that also competed with the Center Market, in which Shepherd had an interest. Shepherd’s men worked with battering rams, axes and sledgehammers to demolish the market and a butcher and a boy and his dog were crushed to death in the debris.

Belva Lockwood
Belva was 20 years older than Charlotte but lived in DC at the same time, and also studied law at the same time, gaining admittance to the DC bar following her request for an intervention by the President. She also famously lobbied congress for to change the law to grant women lawyers the same rights of access as male lawyers. They must have known each other. Did they work together on ensuring rights of access? It’s also worth remembering that in other states, women were facing all kinds of discrimination. In Illinois, the case of Bradwell V IIlinois 1872, was about the ban on women from practicing law: The judge stated:
“…the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.”
How much of that prejudice would Charlotte have faced? Would she have been barred from court just like Belva? Maybe.

What sort of cases did she work on and who might her clients have been?

No one really knows what cases Charlotte fought. All we know is that she had an ‘active practice’. It has been stated that she practiced commercial law and real estate law but what’s striking is that she was also the first woman to argue a case in the District of Columbia Supreme Court where she pleaded the case of Gadley v. Gadley (vt. Godling v. Godling), No. 4278, filed June 3, 1875. This was a case where she defended an uneducated woman petitioning for divorce from an abusive husband. The arguments were based on the grounds of “habitual drunkenness” and “cruelty of treatment, endangering the life or health of the party complaining”. So it seems likely that she was more of a jack of all trades, taking whatever cases she could find. This would also make sense if she was struggling to find clients – she didn’t have the luxury of being picky.

There are some really interesting cases from the time and in my mind, I can see Charlotte arguing them. For example, did you know that in the period, we see some of the first patents being filed by African American women. Take Judy Reed, from Washington, D.C., who was granted a patent in 1884 for a dough kneader and roller (U.S. patent No. 305,474). And then there was the introduction of African Americans on juries. Most interesting was a reference in the papers to one accused man – himself an African American – who didn’t want African Americans on his jury. He feared that they would be so keen to seem unbiased, that they would in face be biased against him. How would Charlotte have handled that case if she had been doing the peremptory challenges?

And finally – although there really is so much more I could say! – what about the collapse of Freedman’s bank – seen as the most secure and trusted bank for freed slaves in America.. Frederick Douglass played a key role in the bank. What scandals swirled under the surface? Did Charlotte use the bank? What about her family? Did they all lose their savings? Why did Charlotte quit?

“On account of prejudice” is the only bit of contemporary information that we have. Would it have been racial or gender prejudice, or both? How would it have manifested itself? My imagination has it that she would have faced stiff opposition from the benches. The idea of Polygenesis or ‘scientific racism’ as it would later be called, was pretty widely held, and by some respectable figures. I can imagine Charlotte coming up against some very earnest criticism on account of her race and, in situations where she bested her detractors, them becoming even more strident in their criticism. Imagine if a Judge was like that!? And what about clients? There were certainly no shortage of people with legal problems – the city was awash with immigrants and migrants and so it seems to me that even if Charlotte faced racism from white clients who didn’t want to hire her, she did have a large pool of other potential clients to draw from. Maybe her practice was made up primarily of immigrants and African Americans? Was sexism more of a factor? Hard to say, there are examples of other women lawyers in America at the time who managed to keep a steady practice but they are few and far between. Maybe in the end, Charlotte just got ground down. She started with lofty ideals but the daily grind, faced with seemingly endless racism and sexism must have been not only hard to take but just depressing. I’m sure she loved what she did, and to have to work in that kind of environment must have taken the joy out of it, making it much more combative. Maybe she felt that her skills were best employed in another field?

I hope that I’ve painted a bit of a picture of Charlotte and her world. I’ve been deliberately specific and used my imagination because I want to try and get more of a handle on Charlotte and her story. If you disagree with me, that’s brilliant! See this blog as a ‘straw (wo)man’. All I want to do is encourage debate and further study.

About the Author
Mark Pallis was called to the bar in 2003 and is the co-founder of Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance, a legal aid charity based in Cairo. In 2007, he devised the TV drama Garrow’s Law about the trailblazing eighteenth century barrister William Garrow and worked on the show for its three series. Mark went on to become Creative Director at an advertising agency but retains an avid interest in legal history and loves shining a light on its forgotten heroes and heroines.