Then and Now: The Leaders of Black History; Charlotte E. Ray

Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman to be a lawyer. Ray took on cases that were ignored and undermined and won. She fought against the discrimination that was placed upon women entering the law field and achieved her dream of becoming an attorney.

Ray came from a family of advocated and catalysts of change. Her father, Charles Bennett Ray, was a minister who edited ‘The Colored American’, as well as an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Her progressive upbringing helped inspire her to pursue her dreams and education.

Enrolling at Howard University as a teacher trainee, Ray was not content with teaching others so she decided to enroll in Howard University’s law school. Women were discouraged from enrolling into law school, so she was forced to apply under the name of C.E. Ray. She studied commercial law and became the first black woman to graduate from an American law school with a law degree in 1872 as well as one of the first women admitted into the D.C. bar.

One of Ray’s cases was that of Martha Gadley, a victim of domestic abuse who was filing for divorce. Despite being a victim of abuse, being that she was a black woman the courts denied her petition and case. She decided to appeal her case with Ray representing her which turned out to be the right call as Ray took Gadley’s case to the District of Columbia Supreme Court and won.

Ray serves as an inspiration and role model for all young girls whether they’re aspiring lawyers or merely desire further education. Her unwavering determination and high moral standards make her one of the strongest women of the 19th century.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story inaccurately used two photos that had been described to students as photos of Charlotte E. Ray. Thanks to the extra researching of internet historians like Fake History Hunter, we found the previous photos were misidentified as Ray. We’ve replaced the photo on this post, plus deleted the original composite from the site. Thanks again to the larger internet community for helping our students make certain that learning never stops.

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