She paved the way!
Howard University is the MECCA, one of the preeminent institutions for Black scholars and culture. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., the university boasts an all-star roster of alumni including Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Anderson, Vice President Kamala Harris, Chadwick Boseman, and Toni Morrison. Established in 1867, Howard has a long history of cultivating Black talent, but let’s talk more about one of the its first graduates, Charlotte Ray.
Charlotte E. Ray was born on January 13, 1850 in New York City and was one of seven children born to Charlotte and Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, the Women’s History Blog reports. Reverend Ray was an editor for The Colored American and a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. The couple emphasized education, sending all three of their girls to college. After the Civil War, Ray attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. Founded by Myrtilla Miner, the school was one of few promising a quality education for Black women.
She graduated in 1869, landing a job with Howard University as a teacher in the Normal and Preparatory Department which trained educators. Despite getting her start in education, her ultimate goal was to become a lawyer. At the time, Howard’s Law School discouraged women from enrolling; Ray disguised her gender by applying under the name ‘C.E. Ray.’ She got accepted, studying commercial law for 3 years. She graduated on February 27, 1872, making history as the first woman to graduate from Howard University School of Law and the first Black woman in the nation to receive a law degree.
Ray went on to open her own law firm in the nation’s capital, continuing to make history as one of the first women to be admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C. on April 23, 1872. Ray became an advocate in the women’s suffrage movement, attending the National Woman’s Suffrage Association’s conference of 1876. According to History.com, during the 19th century, women were barred from practicing law. Systems made it illegal to obtain certain licenses, and they had troubles joining many professional associations that would help propel their career. Ray persevered, taking on a number of cases advocating for women, including Ms. Martha Gadley’s case, a Black woman whose abusive marriage forced her to file for a divorce. At the time, domestic violence was not a priority of the law, but Ray represented her anyway, taking Gadley’s case all the way to the District of Columbia Supreme Court where she was able to win on behalf of her client.
Despite her pioneering achievements, Ray still struggled to maintain a steady roster of clients because of gender discrimination and the oppressive time period. Ray ended up practicing law for only a few years before being forced to shut down operations.
“Although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice was not able to obtain sufficient business and had to give up…active practice,” read an editorial in The Chicago Legal News publication about Ray, written by lawyer Myra Bradwell, another woman lawyer.
Ray then returned to New York where she worked as a teacher in Brooklyn public schools, becoming an active member of the National Association of Colored Women. Ray passed away of acute bronchitis on January 4, 1911 at the age of 60. Today, her accomplishments are still celebrated, and every year since 1989, the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association honors a local Black woman lawyer with the Charlotte E. Ray Award.
We are grateful for all of the barriers Ms. Ray broke. Because of her, we can!
Meet the first woman graduate from Howard University Law School, Charlotte Ray. Photo Courtesy of The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University