While Charlotte E. Ray’s legal career was brief, the trail she blazed as America’s first Black woman lawyer is still inspirational. On February 27, 1872, she left Howard University with a law degree and embarked on her journey before entering into other ventures.
Ray was born January 13, 1850 in New York City. Her father was a notable religious figure and abolitionist. After attending the Institution of the Education of Colored Youth, she became a teacher at a preparatory school connected to Howard University. While working there, she enrolled in the university’s law program under the name C.E. Ray – which some historians believe was a bid to hide her gender although the school reportedly had no such restrictions at the time.
After successfully finishing the three-year program, Ray made history again by becoming one of the first women admitted to the D.C. Bar, and the first woman admitted to practice in front of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Ray opened a practice, using Frederick Douglass’ newspaper to advertise her services, but being a Black woman in a world that didn’t respect her accomplishments made business tough.
The racism and sexism forced her to move north to New York where she returned to teaching. She then joined the woman’s suffrage movement and the National Association of Colored Women.
Ray passed in 1911 at the age of 60.
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