By Carron Nicks • June 02, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence
Have you ever thought about doing something that no one had ever done before, a truly novel idea, and you had no idea how you’d make it happen?
Imagine, if you will, your future as a young woman in post-Civil War Washington, D.C. Chances are good that you would complete 8th grade, but they were poor - less than 50% -- that you would go on to high school. College for women in the 1870s? If you were lucky enough to go attend a college, most likely the curriculum would be designed to train you as a teacher.
Now, imagine that you’re a young black woman. Chances are good that you wouldn’t be in school at all. During this era, maybe 10% of black children ever attended school. But, if you lived in the Washington D.C. area and you beat the odds to go to school, you may have attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, a school that primarily trained young African-Americans to teach, and gone on to Howard University.
Now, imagine that you’ve made it to Howard University. The year is 1869, you’re a woman, you’re black, and you want to study law. At the time, this feat had never been accomplished in the United States. It wasn’t until 1872 that any women graduated from law school. That year two women graduated from Washington University School of Law in far away St. Louis.
Charlotte E. Ray had few professional role models as she was growing up, no one she could look to for guidance and inspiration. What Charlotte had was a father determined that his daughters would get a college education. The Reverend Charles Bennett Ray was a minister, a prominent abolitionist and edited a newspaper called The Colored American. With his support, Charlotte graduated from the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C.
While teaching at Howard University’s prep school, she began taking law classes. From its inception, Howard University has been open to people of all genders, races, and creeds. But Charlotte knew that once she completed her studies she would face a wall of resistance in the bar of the District of Columbia, where women were not allowed to practice. Nevertheless, she took her bar exam. By some accounts, she applied to the bar under the name C.E. Ray, a small but effective subterfuge. This has been disputed, but by whatever means she was admitted and allowed to practice law. She was the first woman and one of the first African-Americans to become a member of the D.C. bar, and the first female African-American lawyer in the United States.
According to many sources, Ray’s intent was to practice corporate or commercial law. She was said to be one of the best corporate lawyers in America. She is also known to have taken at least one family law matter, the celebrated case of Gladley v. Gladley, a sordid tale of extreme abuse. Unfortunately, despite her personal popularity, her Howard connections, and her marketing efforts in local newspapers, she was unable to make enough money to sustain herself and was forced to close her practice. She moved to New York where she taught in the public schools.
Today, Ray is remembered by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association through presentation of the Charlotte E. Ray award given to a woman lawyer for her exceptional achievements in the legal profession and extraordinary contribution to the advancement of women in the profession.
Now, tell us about the never-been-done-before feat you’d like to accomplish.