In recognition of Women’s History Month 2019, and in recognition that last February was celebrated as Black History Month I have chosen to highlight the life and career of a legal trailblazer who, outside of limited circles is virtually unknown to most Americans. Charlotte E. Ray was America’s first black female lawyer. She was also the first woman to be admitted to practice before the to the District of Columbia Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Attorney Ray’s admission to practice was seen for the precedent it was, as women who came after her used her example in seeking admission to practice as attorneys.
Ms. Ray was born in New York City in 1850. Her father, Charles Bennet Ray was active in the abolitionist movement and was the editor of a newspaper titled The Colored American. As a result of her father’s deep belief in education, Ms. Ray received schooling at an early age and graduated from the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in 1869. She later went on to teach at Howard University and it was at this time that she entered the Howard University School of Law, registering as “C.E. Ray” ostensibly to hide her gender!
Attorney Ray was admitted to the bar and to practice in the District of Columbia in 1872. Her practice was centered on commercial law, and in order to gain clients she advertised her services in newspapers owned by Frederick Douglass. Unfortunately, despite her Howard University connections and her advertisements, Attorney Ray was simply unable to generate enough business to sustain her private practice. Historical accounts vary, but some believed that despite her clear legal acumen and talent, “on account of prejudice [she] was not able to obtain sufficient business” as people were unwilling to trust a black woman with their legal matters. Attorney Ray gave up her practice and returned to teaching in Brooklyn, New York.
Outside of the law she was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Charlotte E. Ray, Esq. died on January 4, 1911 in Long Island, New York. She was honored posthumously by the Northeastern School of Law in March 2006 for her achievement as the first female African-American attorney.