Black History Month Spotlight: Charlotte E. Ray

In honor of Black History Month, members of Pond Lehocky Giordano’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee are taking the time to listen and learn. We are proud to present our series on historical BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) litigators who have inspired our team members.

Pond Lehocky values diversity and equality with our staff and attorneys, so with this spirit in mind, the next addition to the series of articles for Black History Month is Ray, the first female African American attorney. Last week’s article shared the story of Macon Bolling Allen, the first male African American attorney. He certainly paved the way for future generations. Education was more available to African Americans when Charlotte E. Ray made her choice to become an attorney; however, she faced not only the prejudices of her race, but also her gender when embarking on the practice of law.

Ray was born in 1850 in New York City. Her father, Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was an important figure in the abolitionist movement and edited the newspaper called The Colored American. Reverend Ray insisted that his three daughters receive an appropriate education. Ray attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. and graduated in 1869. This school was one of only a few in the country where an African American woman could obtain an education.

After the Civil War, members of the First Congregational Society of Washington considered establishing a theological seminary to educate black clergymen, however, the project expanded to include a provision to establish a university. Within two years, Howard University was founded. In its first five years of operation, Howard University educated more than 150,000 freed slaves. Ray became a teacher at Howard University’s Preparatory School. Howard University became the first school in the nation to have a non-discriminatory admissions policy. From the date of its founding, it admitted white male and female students along with black male students. However, after its first 30 years of existence, only eight women were able to graduate.

While teaching at Howard, Ray saw her opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming an attorney and applied for admission to the law school as C.E. Ray. She graduated on February 27, 1872. Thus, Ray became the first African American female to graduate from law school and became one of only eight women to have graduated from Howard University in its first 30 years. In March of 1872, Ray was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, and shortly after, she was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court.

Ray opened her own practice in 1872 with a focus on commercial law. She advertised her practice in the New National Era and Citizen, which was owned by Frederick Douglass. Ray was the first female to practice and argue in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. She represented an uneducated woman who petitioned the Court for divorce from an abusive husband. The matter was Gadley v. Gadley, No. 4278, filed on June 3, 1875. Ray was able to secure the divorce based upon her vivid pleadings and arguments, which outlined in graphic detail the abuse that Mrs. Gadley endured during her marriage. Although divorce is commonplace now, it certainly was not in 1875, and her success lends credence to Ray’s skill in advocacy.

Ray was said to be eloquent and “one of the best lawyers on corporations in the country” at the time; however, her skill and eloquence did not allow her to overcome the adversity that she faced as the first female African American attorney. She simply could not generate enough business to sustain a viable practice. Simply put, corporations were unwilling to entrust their legal affairs to a woman of color. Unable to sustain a viable practice, Ray was forced to return to teaching. She returned to New York City and worked in the Brooklyn school system. However, the fire for justice could not be extinguished within Ray. She became active in the Woman Suffrage movement and attended the National Woman Suffrage Association’s New York Convention in 1876. She further was active in the National Association of Colored Women. Ray passed away in 1911; unfortunately, she never was able to exercise the right to vote as the 19th Amendment was not ratified until 1920.

Ray was a pioneer, and, like most pioneers, she was ahead of her time, but our country would not be where we are without brave and dedicated individuals like Ray. She proved that race nor gender could prevent her from becoming a lawyer. Although she may not have been successful in maintaining a career as a lawyer, she certainly saved her client’s life by securing her divorce. Furthermore, Ray paved the way for future generations of women who would enter the legal profession, including our Firm’s first female Partner and DEI Committee Co-Chair, Melissa Chandy.

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