Law Hall of Fame logoCharlotte Ray was born in New York City to the Reverend Charles Ray, the outspoken supporter of the Underground Railroad and publisher of the Colored American.

Charlotte was sent to Washington to attend the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, DC and by 1869, she was a teacher at the newly-founded Howard University.

She began to sit in on classes at the law faculty and graduated in 1872, having focussed on commercial law.

Charlotte RayShe then passed the bar admission exam and applied to be admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia on April 23, 1872, becoming the first lady lawyer in Washington.

To get around the gender barriers, she sometimes used the androgynous name of "C. E. Ray".

Color notwithstanding, she thus became the second woman (after Arabella "Belle" Mansfield in Iowa in 1869) to be admitted to the practise of law by a bar in the United States; the first black lawyer

She opened up a law practise but clients shied away.

The Chicago Legal News -(owned by Myra Bradwell, who passed the Illinois bar exam in 1869 but was refused call by the Illinois court) wrote this of Charlotte Ray:

"Miss Ray ... although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice was not able to obtain sufficient business and had to give up ... active practise."

There is apparently only one pleading in her name - a family law case (Gadley v Gadley).

She returned to New York City and to a teaching career in Brooklyn. She died in 1911 having only sparingly been able to represent a client in the walls of a courtroom. 

But her legacy left open the door for both black and female candidates; and not just in the USA, but around the world as increasingly, these two groups were revealing the empty and asine objections to their status. Her place is assured in any law hall of fame along with other women such as Deborah, Margaret Brent and Belva Lockwood.

REFERENCES:

  • Chicago Legal News, October 23, 1897
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law's Hall of Fame
  • James, E. and others, editors, Notable American Women 1607-1950 , Volume I (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1971), page 121.
  • Osborne, T., Charlotte Ray: A Black Woman Lawyer (Stanford Law School, 2001).
  • Smith, J. C., Charlotte Ray Pleads Before The Court 43 Howard Law Journal 121 (2000)
  • The above image of Charlotte Ray was commissioned by the New York Senate as part of their Women of Distinction series.