Remembering Charlotte E. Ray

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Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray. (Despite a number of images misidentified as Ms. Ray online, there are no known photographs).

As we mark the close of Black History Month this year, we share with our readers this timely reminder that for our clients, but also for the practitioners within our field, the history of intersectional discrimination is both long and unfinished, as is the story of the many struggles against it. Charlotte E. Ray was both the first woman to practice law in Washington, DC, and the first Black female lawyer in the US. BayLegal attorney Henrissa Bassey directs our attention to her story as both a notable achievement in anti-racist, feminist efforts within the legal profession, and also an indication of the often severe barriers that these efforts face and the work that remains to be done:

I was familiar with Ms. Ray’s story, but hadn’t reflected on her career using an intersectional lens. It’s unfortunate that many female lawyers of color face the same type of intersectional discrimination that Ms. Ray faced. We can only hope that continued anti-racist, feminist efforts will decrease race and gender discrimination within the legal profession.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights provides a brief biographical sketch of Ms. Ray:

Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard Law School on February 27, 1872, becoming not only the first female African-American lawyer in the United States but also the first practicing female lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Ray was born in 1850 in New York City, where her father worked as a minister and was a prominent abolitionist. She attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., one of the few educational institutions in the country that educated African-American girls.

In 1869, Ray began teaching at Howard University, which was established in 1867 to educate emancipated slaves and their descendents. During her first year of teaching, Ray was accepted into the Howard School of Law, where she applied under the name “C.E. Ray” because the university was reluctant to admit women to its law program.

Upon graduating in 1872, Ray opened a law practice, specializing in commercial law. However, Ray was unable to maintain her practice due to race and gender discrimination. She returned to New York in 1879 where she worked as a teacher in Brooklyn. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until her death at age 60.

Additional detail on Ms. Ray’s life and work is available in this more recent article from The History Channel.