Charlotte Ray was the first Black American female attorney in the United States, the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar (which had recently removed “male” from its requirements), and the first female admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. She was born January 13, 1850 in New York City to Charlotte Burroughs and Reverend Charles Bennet Ray. Her father Rev. Ray was an important figure in the abolitionist movement, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and edited a newspaper called, “The Colored American.” Charlotte had six siblings, including two sisters. All the girls went to college as education was important to her father.
Left is the only known sketch of Charlotte Ray.
Charlotte graduated from the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. in 1869, one of the few places a Black woman could get a proper education. Afterward, Charlotte taught at Howard University where she later registered in the Law Department as “C. E. Ray” to combat discrimination towards women applying to law school. Her admission was used as a precedent in other states for other women who sought admission to law school. She graduated on February 27, 1872 as the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law.
Charlotte began her practice of commercial law in 1872. She was the first woman to practice and argue before the D.C. Supreme Court in the case of Gadley v. Gadley, pleading the case of an illiterate black woman petitioning for divorce from an abusive husband. In addition to “habitual drunkenness” and “cruelty of treatment,” Charlotte’s petition vividly evoked an incident where the husband broke the bed, forcing the wife to lie on the floor where he then ripped up the planks with an ax with the intention of causing the wife to fall through and break her neck. Charlotte and her client were victorious at the Supreme Court in her petition.
Despite Charlotte’s eloquence and authoritative presence, her Howard connections and advertisements, she was unable to maintain a steady client flow to support herself due to the prejudice of people at the time not wanting to trust a black woman with their case. She later gave up her active practice and returned to teaching in the Brooklyn school system. Charlotte married in the late 1880s, though little is known of her husband besides his last name of Fraim, which she took. She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and joined the National Association of Colored Women. Charlotte passed away on January 4, 1911 of bronchitis at the age of 60.
Charlotte’s legacy lives on in countless ways, not least of which the glass ceilings she shattered both as an African-American and a woman. Since 1989 the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association annually recognizes an outstanding local African-American female lawyer with the Charlotte E. Ray award. In 2006, Phi Alpha Delta fraternity at Northeastern University School of Law chose to honor Charlotte by naming their newly chartered chapter after her in recognition of her place in the history of the practice of law.