Charlotte E. Ray was one of the foremost black legal leaders and trailblazers who have advanced civil rights.
In the 19th century, the legal profession was never a choice for women, particularly women of color as they were barred from the profession. The main reason being that the legal profession was largely controlled by, and reserved for, wealthy white men.
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Black women could not enroll in law schools neither could they obtain licenses to practice law across the United States.
Despite the seeming impossibility, Ray became the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar thereby making her the first African-American woman to graduate from a law school.
Ray isn’t just Howard’s first black woman legal graduate, but one of just a small handful of women who practiced law at the time when she gained admission in 1872.
Born January 13, 1850, to Charles Bennett Ray, a prominent abolitionist, and clergyman who edited one of the first newspapers published by and for African-Americans, ‘The Colored American”.
He enrolled his daughter in the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, one of the only schools that would teach young black women.
Ray was also the first black woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.
Ray soon opened her own law office in the District but shortly after her victory in Martha Gadley’s divorce case (No. 4278, filed June 3, 1875) she was compelled to close her practice.
She could not survive the prejudice against black people which affected her legal practice immensely. Ray could not secure clients, neither could she obtain enough funds to sustain it.
The legal profession has remained largely hostile to black women over the years and even today only a few attorneys are black.