This woman broke barriers to become the first black female lawyer in the US

Theodora Aidoo January 13, 2020
Charlotte E. Ray became the first female African- American lawyer in the United States in 1872 - Pic Credit: (There is no photo of Charlotte E. Ray. This is only this illustration)

Charlotte E. Ray was one of the foremost black legal leaders and trailblazers who have advanced civil rights.

Graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1872, Ray became the first Black American female lawyer in the United States.

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.

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.

According to reports, by the 1880s, Ray moved to New York and became a public school teacher and was active in public affairs particularly supporting women’s suffrage and equality for black women.

The legal profession has remained largely hostile to black women over the years and even today only a few attorneys are black.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: January 13, 2020


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