Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911)

District of Columbia neighborhoods map, 2008
Map by Peter Fitzgerald (CC BY 3.0)

Charlotte E. Ray was the first black woman attorney in the United States and the first woman to practice law in Washington, D.C. Ray was born on January 13, 1850, in New York City to her mother, Charlotte Augusta Burroughs Ray, and her father, a prominent abolitionist, Charles Bennett Ray, who also served as pastor of the Bethesda Congregational Church and as editor of one of the first newspapers published by and for African Americans, The Colored American.

Ray attended one of the few schools in the country that educated African American girls: Myrtilla Miner’s Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., subsequently known as the Miner Normal School. She graduated in 1869.

That same year Ray began teaching at Howard University, just two years after the HBCU was established. While on the Howard faculty, she was accepted into the newly established Howard School of Law where she attended classes in the evenings. She graduated with her Howard Law degree on February 27, 1872, as its first woman graduate.

Although women were not members of the bar of the District of Columbia, Ray took her bar exams as “C.E. Ray” securing her admission to the bar without disclosing that she was a woman.  As a result she became the first female member of the District of Columbia bar.

In 1872 Ray opened a law practice specializing in commercial law in Washington D.C. One of her most recognized cases was her representation of Martha Gadley, an African American woman who petitioned for divorce from an abusive husband. Gadley’s petition was denied in 1875, but Ray agreed to take the case on appeal to the District of Columbia’s Supreme Court. She successfully overturned the lower court’s ruling by arguing that the husband’s habitual drunkenness and extreme violence endangered his wife’s life and entitled her to a divorce.

Despite her success, Ray was unable to obtain sufficient cases for representation, so she subsequently closed her practice in 1879 and returned to New York City to work as a teacher in the Brooklyn public school system. Ray was an active advocate for social justice. She attended the National Woman Suffrage Association’s (NWSA) annual convention in New York City in 1876 and she joined the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1895. In 1897 she relocated to the Woodside neighborhood in Queens, New York where she lived until her death on January 4, 1911 at the age of 60.

Ray’s contributions to the practice of law continue well after her death. There are at least two annual awards given in her name: The Annual Charlotte E. Ray Award from the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association and the MCCA Charlotte E. Ray Award, presented to a woman lawyer for her exceptional achievements in the legal profession and extraordinary contribution to the advancement of women in the profession.