Who Was Charlotte E. Ray?

On her 166th birthday, we take a look at the life of the first female African-American attorney.
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Catherine McHugh
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On her 166th birthday, we take a look at the life of the first female African-American attorney.
Charlotte E. Rae Drawing

A drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, who graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872. (Image: Unknown artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As the first woman admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and the first African-American woman certified as a lawyer in the United States, civil and women’s rights activist and teacher Charlotte E. Ray truly earned her place in history.

She was born in New York City on January 13, 1850, to Charles Bennett Ray and Charlotte Augusta Burroughs Ray.  Charles was a minister at New York's Bethesda Congregational Church, and editor of the Colored American, an abolitionist newspaper. Charlotte was also an anti-slavery activist who worked with her husband to help escaped slaves travel north to freedom on the Underground Railroad. They had seven children in total (although two passed away as teenagers) and worked to ensure that all of their children graduated from college, which was a highly unusual achievement for a black family in the 19th century.

In the mid 1860s, Ray moved to Washington, D.C. to attend the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, which was one of the few schools where African Americans could obtain an academic education. After completing her studies at age 19 in 1869, she taught classes at Howard University's Normal and Preparatory Department, which trained students to become elementary school teachers and prepared them for classes in the collegiate department. 

Ambitious Goals

Dissatisfied with teaching, Ray applied to the university's law school under the name “C.E. Ray” to disguise her gender. University officials reluctantly accepted her application and she attended classes while continuing to teach in the Preparatory and Normal Department. From 1869 to 1872, Ray pursued a demanding course of study, impressing her fellow students and teachers with her quick grasp of legal complexities. 

She concentrated on studying commercial law and became the first black woman to graduate from an American law school and receive a law degree. She became the third American woman of any race to complete law school. Ray achieved another first when on April 23, 1872 she was admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia, which had recently removed the word "male" from its requirements.

Accounts from those who knew, worked and studied with Ray note her legal knowledge, intelligence and skill. Though she earned the respect of many of her colleagues and capably argued many cases, her gender and color prevented her from building a career as a lawyer. A nationwide economic depression also made it a difficult time to start a new business. After trying for several years to establish a legal practice, Ray was forced to give up. In 1879, she returned to New York, where she joined two of her sisters who were working as teachers in the Brooklyn public school system.

Groundbreaking Achievements

Despite her thwarted legal career, Ray's groundbreaking achievements paved the way for other women and people of color to enter the law and other professions that had once been reserved for white men only. Ray specialized in business law and became highly regarded as an expert in the legal issues of corporations. Her academic skill was recognized by her membership in the prestigious academic society, Phi Beta Kappa. 

As an advocate for women's suffrage, Ray was a delegate to the 1876 conference of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. In 1895, she joined the newly formed National Association of Colored Women. 

Little is known about Ray's personal life after she returned to New York. In 1886, at the age of 36, she married a man named Fraim but it is not clear how long the marriage lasted. There were no children. She died in Woodside, New York from a severe case of bronchitis on January 4, 1911.

Impressive Legacy

Though Ray had only a short career as an attorney, her life still represents an enormous triumph. As the first African-American woman lawyer, and one of the first women lawyers in the nation, Ray opened a door for all the women of color who would come after her. To salute her achievement, the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association recognized Ray's contribution to the legal profession in 1989, when it established an annual "Charlotte Ray Award," to honor outstanding African-American women lawyers in the Washington area. Kirra L. Jarratt, Executive Director of the D.C. Bar Foundation, was 2015’s award recipient.