A Trailblazer in Justice: The Pioneering Journey of Charlotte E. Ray, America’s First African American Female Lawyer
NDAA Black History Month Series: Celebrating Pioneering Figures in Justice
Charlotte E. Ray’s life story is one of extraordinary determination, intelligence, and resilience against the backdrop of a post-Civil War America that was rife with sexism and racism. Born on January 13, 1850, in New York City, Charlotte’s early life was deeply influenced by her father, Rev. Charles Bennett Ray, a distinguished abolitionist and pastor. His commitment to civil rights and justice undeniably shaped her aspirations and dedication to societal equality and justice.
Ray’s early education in Washington, D.C., was a significant phase of her life, underscoring her path toward becoming the first African American female attorney in the United States. Ray attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. (now known as the University of the District of Columbia), which was one of the few educational institutions offering quality education to African Americans at the time. This school played a crucial role in providing Ray with the foundational knowledge and skills that would later support her historic entrance into the legal profession. Following graduation in 1869, Ray went on to attend Howard University, initially enrolling in the Normal and Preparatory Department to become a teacher. However, her passion for justice and equality soon led her to set her sights on a more ambitious goal: a career in law.
Breaking Barriers in Legal Education
Howard University’s Law School, like most professional institutions at the time, did not admit women. Ray, undeterred by this obstacle, applied under the name “C.E. Ray” to obscure her gender. Her application was successful, and she was admitted, revealing the extent of her determination to pursue a career in law despite societal norms that excluded women and African Americans from the profession.
During her time at Howard, Ray excelled academically, impressing both her peers and professors with her legal acumen. Her time at Howard was challenging, not only because of the rigorous curriculum but also because she had to navigate a predominantly male environment that was not always welcoming to a woman, let alone an African American woman.
Overcoming Professional Hurdles
After graduating in 1872, Ray faced the formidable challenge of entering the legal profession as a black woman. At the time, the American legal profession was exclusively male and predominantly white. That same year, Ray passed the District of Columbia (D.C.) bar exam, becoming the first African American female lawyer in the United States. Her admission to the D.C. Bar was not merely a personal victory but a monumental stride for African Americans and women in law. Her admission was used as a precedent by women in other states who sought admission to the bar, opening the door for countless others.
However, her achievements did not shield her from the racism and sexism pervasive in society and the legal profession. Shortly after her admission to the bar, Ray opened her own law firm in Washington, D.C. where she specialized in commercial law but also took on cases in other areas such as real estate and family law. Despite her qualifications and competence, she struggled to attract clients. The prevailing societal norms, deeply rooted in racial and gender biases, posed significant challenges in her legal practice, impeding her ability to sustain her career.
Because of these difficulties, Ray’s legal career was relatively short-lived. Historical records indicate that she closed her law practice by 1879, about seven years after opening it, due to the insurmountable challenges in attracting enough clients to sustain her practice. She eventually returned to moved back to New York where Ray shifted her professional focus back to education and activism, working as a teacher and becoming involved in the suffrage movement.
Ray’s pioneering journey blazed a trail for women and African Americans in the legal profession. Her life story, characterized by remarkable accomplishments and significant adversities, provides invaluable insights on the significance of diversity, the consequences of systemic biases, and the lasting influence of resilience and dedication to civil rights.
Coming Soon, Feb. 15: Next in our series, we’re profiling Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice.
The National District Attorneys Association is committed to supporting and promoting prosecutors of diverse backgrounds. Learn more about the steps our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is taking to support prosecutors in the field.
- Smith, J. Clay Jr. “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944.” University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
- Yarbrough, Tinsley E. “Race and the Jury: Racial Disenfranchisement and the Search for Justice.” Springer, 1994.
- Drachman, Virginia G. “Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History.” Harvard University Press, 2001.