Charlotte E. Ray was the first Black American female lawyer
Born in New York City on January 13, 1850, Charlotte E. Ray is best known as the first female African-American lawyer in the United States. Decades before she would win that distinction, however, Ray grew up in a large family as one of seven children. Her father, Charles, was a minister and an activist in the abolitionist movement. He edited the Colored American, an abolitionist publication, and helped in the Underground Railroad, which aided escaped slaves in their efforts to find freedom in the North.
Education was very important to Ray’s family. During the 1860s, Ray attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. The institution was one of only a handful of places that offered a quality education to young, African-American women. By the end of the 1860s, she had become a teacher at the preparatory school associated with Howard University. Ray then applied to the university’s law program as C.E. Ray, using only her initials. Some thought that she used her initials as a way of disguising her gender since the university did not accept women into the program, but her exact intentions remain unknown. In any case, Ray gained admittance to the program.
Ray excelled at her studies at the Howard University School of Law, especially in corporate law. According to Notable Black American Women, one of her classmates described her as “an apt scholar.” Ray earned her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar that same year, becoming the first African-American female attorney in the United States, as well as one of the first women to be admitted to the D.C. bar. She continued to break new ground for women and African Americans later in life, becoming the first woman to be granted permission to argue cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the capital.
Following her graduation, Ray started her own law office, specializing in commercial law. To attract clients, she advertised in a newspaper run by Frederick Douglass, a leader in the abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, Ray only practiced for a few years because of the widespread prejudices of the time. It was too difficult for her, as an African American and a woman, to attract enough clients to keep her practice going.
In 1879, Ray moved to New York, where she worked as a teacher in the Brooklyn public schools. She married soon after, taking her husband’s last name, Fraim. Ray championed a number of social causes outside of her classroom, becoming involved in the women’s suffrage movement and joining the National Association of Colored Women.
Ray died on January 4, 1911, in Woodside, New York. While she only practiced law for a few years, she demonstrated that African-American women could excel in this field. Her achievements helped inspire others to reach for other seemingly impossible goals.