Sunday, January 13, 2013

Charlotte Ray

Born this day in 1850: Charlotte Ray (1850–1911), teacher, first African American woman to hold a law degree, and first woman of any color to be admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C.

Charlotte Ray was a native of New York City and daughter of a pastor who was a prominent member of the African American community and a conductor on the underground railroad. She attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, in Washington, D.C., and in 1869 became a teacher at Howard University in the schools the normal and preparatory department. She also studied law while at Howard, receiving her law degree in 1872. She was the first African American woman in the United States to receive a law degree. She was admitted to the D.C. bar—the law had just been changed, deleting being male as a requirement—becoming the first woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia.
Ray set up a law practice, specializing in commercial law, but could not get enough clients to keep her practice open. Accounts describe her as a more than able lawyer, but that racial prejudice kept clients away. By 1879 she resumed her teaching career in her home state of New York, teaching in the Brooklyn public schools.
Not very much is known about the rest of her life. She was active in the women’s movement—records show that she was a delegate to the National Woman Suffrage Association’s annual meeting in New York City in 1876. She married in the late 1880s. In 1895 she joined the newly founded National Association of Colored Women.  Ray died of acute bronchitis in 1911.

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