Today in Civil Rights History: Charlotte E. Ray, First Female African-American Lawyer

Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard Law School on February 27, 1872, becoming not only the first female African-American lawyer in the United States but also the first practicing female lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Ray was born in 1850 in New York City, where her father worked as a minister and was a prominent abolitionist. She attended the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., one of the few educational institutions in the country that educated African-American girls.

In 1869, Ray began teaching at Howard University, which was established in 1867 to educate emancipated slaves and their decedents. During her first year of teaching, Ray was accepted into the Howard School of Law, where she applied under the name “C.E. Ray” because the university was reluctant to admit women to its law program.

Upon graduating in 1872, Ray opened a law practice, specializing in commercial law. However, Ray was unable to maintain her practice due to race and gender discrimination.  She returned to New York in 1879 where she worked as a teacher in Brooklyn. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until her death at age 60.