Knowing The Law: The Story of America’s First Black Female Lawyer Charlotte E. Ray

When we look at the extensive list of black female lawyers that have achieved success in this country. What many people fail to realize is this was all made possible by a woman named Charlotte E. Ray who was the first black female lawyer in this country, and only the third women of any race. Born on January 13th, 1850. Her father, Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was a prominent New York abolitionist and minister who served as pastor of the Bethesda Congregational Church and was the owner of the Colored American, one of the leading African American newspapers of the antebellum era. 

Her mother, Charlotte Augusta Burroughs Ray, was raised in Savannah, Georgia. Charlotte Ray was the youngest of three girls. Ray spent her early years in New York but her parents moved the family to Washington D.C. where she attended the Institute for the education of colored youth, which was the only school in the area that allowed young black girls to become students. Ray graduated from the institute in 1869.

She then became a teacher at Howard University, which was only four years old at the time. She was hired in the Preparatory and normal department, where she began training others to be teachers. She enjoyed her job but her true ambition was to attend the universities law school. At the time, Howard University discouraged women from applying to there school, so she applied under the name “C.E Ray” to disguise her gender. After the university reluctantly approved her application, she attended Howard University law school from 1869-1872 where she concentrated on commercial law.

After completing the program in 1872 she became the first black women to graduate from an American law school and receive a law degree. Another breakthrough took place when the District of Columbia began to allow women admission into the bar. Ray then opened her own law firm in Washington D.C but found it difficult to make a living due to racial and gender politics. In 1879, she returned to New York and became a teacher again in Brooklyn, NY.

By this time, she had become an advocate for women suffrage. In 1876, she was a delegate at the conference of the national woman’s Suffrage Association. Several years later in 1895, she became a member of the newly formed National Association of colored women. Charlotte E. Ray’s life and accomplishments can serve as a noteworthy example for the young girls in our community to never give up and follow their dreams, regardless of the obstacles.















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