Did You Know the First African-American Woman Lawyer Was Born on This Day?

Listen to this story

This Day In History: January 13th

Despite being born 70 years before women earned the right to vote, Charlotte E. Ray was able to open doors and break barriers that many could only dream of. Ray made history as the first credited African-American female lawyer in the United States and she practiced during the 1870s.

Charlotte E. Ray was born on January 13, 1850, in New York, New York. Her father was a prominent pastor and abolitionist who edited The Colored American. Ray was able to attend the Miner Normal School in Washington, D.C. The institution was unlike most schools in the country because it accepted African-American girls, not just boys. 

After finishing her education, she began teaching at Howard University in 1869. While teaching at the university, Ray was accepted into the Howard School of Law, where she became its first woman graduate in 1872. She passed the bar exam to become the first woman admitted to practice law in the nation’s capital and the first African-American woman lawyer in the United States. 

Her first client was Martha Gadley. Gadley was married to an abusive husband with an alcohol addiction, and his drunken nights would result in physical altercations with his wife. She decided to file for divorce (which was uncommon at the time), but her case was dismissed due to the court’s lack of concern for domestic violence victims.

Gadley was determined to get her divorce and sought legal counsel from Ray. Together, the women took the case to the District of Columbia Supreme Court and were successful in their pursuits. The lower court’s decision was overturned and Gadley was granted a divorce from her abusive spouse. 

Ray took her legal career a step further following her victory with the District of Columbia Supreme Court and opened her own law practice. Although she was able to break through as the first African-American female lawyer, she closed her practice in 1879 due to the prejudices she faced. She returned to New York and went back to educating students in the public school system. 

Her time practicing law was short-lived, but her legacy was everlasting. She remained a supporter of women’s rights until her death on January 4, 1911. 

You May Also Like