Charlotte E. Ray

April 23rd Celebrates Charlotte E

Today on Days to remember we celebrate how on April 23rd 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African American woman lawyer.

Charlotte Ray graduated Phi Beta Kappa on February 27, 1872, completing a three-year program, as the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law.

Ray was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar on March 2, 1872, and admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on April 23, 1872.

Her appointment was noted in the Woman’s Journal and gained her inclusion as one of the Women of the Century.

Ray began her independent practice of commercial law in 1872, advertising in newspapers such as the New National Era and Citizen, owned by Frederick Douglass.

Some sources suggest that she hoped to specialize in real estate law, which would involve fewer appearances in court.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that she was active in court. She was the first woman to practice and argue in the District of Columbia Supreme Court, where she pleaded the case of Gadley v. Gadley filed June 3, 1875.

In this case, 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”.

Ray’s petition vividly evokes the violence of the marriage, describing an incident in which the husband first broke the bedstead, so that the wife lay down on the floor, and then “went down stairs, got an ax and returning, ripped up the planks in the floor”, with the intention of causing his wife to fall through and break her neck.

Charlotte Ray was said to be eloquent, authoritative, and “one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country.”

Yet despite her Howard connections and advertisements, she was unable to maintain a steady client flow, sufficient to support herself. Regardless of her legal knowledge and corporate law expertise, not enough people were willing to trust a black woman with their cases.

Wisconsin lawyer Kate Kane Rossi, in 1897, recalled that “Miss Ray … although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up … active practice.”

Instead she returned to teaching, working in the Brooklyn school system.

She married in the late 1880s and became Charlotte E. Fraim.

In 1897 she moved to Woodside, Long Island, where she died of acute bronchitis at the age of 60 on January 4, 1911, but what remarkable woman she was as we celebrate how on April 23rd 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African American woman lawyer.

Written & Designed by JD Mitchell


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