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First published in February 2021 LC News
As we celebrate Black History month let us remember, celebrate, and honor with deeds and words the first female African American lawyer in the United States, Charlotte E. Ray.
Charlotte E. Ray was born on January 13, 1850–over 171 years ago. At 22 years old she became the first woman to graduate from Howard University School of Law, and the third woman of any race to complete law school. After graduating in 1872, that same year she became the first African American female lawyer in the United States. Ray was also the first woman admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and the first woman to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. You can read more about her accomplishments in the book “Women of the Century” by Phebe A. Hanaford.
Ray opened her own law office and advertised in a newspaper run by Frederick Douglas. Unfortunately, she did not practice long because racial and gender prejudices prevented her from having a successful law practice. After closing her law practice, she became a teacher and an advocate for women’s suffrage. She 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.
Ray’s legacy lives on via the Northeastern University Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity International that honored Ray in 2006 by naming their newly chartered chapter after her. The Minority Corporate Counsel Association awards an annual award in Ray’s name to a “woman lawyer for her exceptional achievements in the legal profession and extraordinary contribution to the advancement of women in the profession.”
Ray’s legacy also serves as a persuasive reminder to celebrate our African American female lawyers and judges because gender and racial equality and equity remain a goal for the legal community. The California State Bar’s First Annual Report Card on the Diversity of California’s Legal Profession and the California Judicial Council 2020 Judicial Officer Demographic Data Report confirm more work remains to done to ensure that equality and equity of gender and racial diversity are ingrained in the fabric of the legal system. In California, African Americans make up 6% of the population compared to 4% of the state’s lawyers and 7.7% of the state’s judges. Women make up 50% of the state’s population compared to 42% of female lawyers in the state and 37% of female judges in the state.
This Black History Month let us honor Ray with deeds and words that support women of color in the law and society.