Charlotte E. Ray (January 13, 1850 – January 4, 1911) was the first African-American female lawyer in the United States. Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872 and became the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar.
Ray opened her own law office and planned to practice real estate law. She did this so she can avoid “court appearances and the discrimination that women attorneys encountered.” (Hines) Stewart ran advertisements in a newspaper run by Frederick Douglass. While practicing she would often use her initials, instead of her full name, so that “her clients would not suffer because their legal counsel could be identified as a women.” Ray only practiced for a few years because the prejudice was just too much at the time. She had two great odds against her. She was an African American and she was a woman. Due to these she was unable to attract many clients and forced to close her practice.
Ray eventually moved to New York, where she became a teacher in Brooklyn. She joined the National Association of Colored Women and “championed a number of social causes outside of her classroom.” Her achievements helped inspire countless women, especially African-American women, to reach for their goals even though it might seem impossible.
Though Ray was born in New York City, she was educated in the District of Columbia.
Charlotte was born to Charlotte Augusta Burroughs and Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, a prominent abolitionist. Education was important to her father, who made sure each of his girls went to college. She had six siblings, two of which were sisters, Cordelia and Florence. Charlotte had a rough time growing up with 10 people living in the house. Reverend Charles Bennett Ray was an important figure in the abolitionist movement and edited a paper called The Colored American.
Charlotte attended a school called the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., which was one of the few places black women could gain proper education. After this she became a teacher at Howard University in the Normal and Preparatory Department, which was the University's Prep School. While teaching at Howard, she registered in the Law Department. In the law school she specialized in commercial law, and graduated on February 27, 1872 and was the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law.
Some claim she was admitted to the Howard School of Law in the District of Columbia in 1872 because she applied under the name “C. E. Ray” and that Ray used an alternate name to disguise her gender so that her admission would not be instantly revoked. There are also claims (Smith) that her use of initials is not proven, and it would not have been needed, because Howard University at this time had a clearly articulated policy of acceptance of blacks and of women. She was affiliated with the Phi Beta Kappa. (Hargert).
Ray was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar on April 23, 1872. She began her independent practice of commercial law in 1872, which she advertised in a newspaper called New National Era and Citizen owned by Frederick Douglass. She was the first women allowed to practice and argue in the District of Columbia Supreme Court in Washington D.C. Contrary to popular belief, Charlotte E. Ray was active in court and can be heard in her pleading for the Galdey vs. Gadley case, June 3. 1875. (Smith) In this case, she defends an uneducated woman petitioning for divorce, liberating her from an abusive relationship. Despite the connections she had from Howard, and the advertising, she was unable to keep a steady client flow due mostly to ever present discrimination. Regardless of her legal knowledge and corporate law expertise, not enough people were willing to trust a black woman with their cases. Instead she gave up her practice and she devoted her professionalism to the Brooklyn school system. Hargrove. She never let anything or anyone stop her for doing what she believed in.