Her professional load

Charlotte E. Ray

By Keisha Bell

In addition to the stress of everyday life–the bills that must be paid, the demands of parenting and relationships and aging parents, the influx of negative messaging that perpetuate division and her personal struggles–she must deal with deeply woven, adverse beliefs about the body in which she was born.

She is a female. She is a minority. It is what it is. What a combination to carry, especially when working in a predominantly male-dominated industry.

Meet Charlotte E. Ray. She lived from January 13, 1850, until January 4, 1911. She made history by becoming the first African-American female lawyer in the United States.

More specifically, Ray was the first woman to graduate from the Howard University School of Law; the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, as well as, the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

Ray’s bar admission was used as a precedent by women in other states who also sought attorney status.

While growing up, there was never a question as to whether Ray would attend college because of her father’s strong belief in the importance of obtaining an education. At that time, few places would allow African-American women to receive a proper education. This obstacle did not stop her.

Hence, in 1869, Ray graduated from the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. Then in 1872, she graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872.

Reportedly, Ray was considered to be one of the best lawyers in the country on corporation law. This was quite an accomplishment for a woman attorney, especially when adding that she was African American.

As you can imagine, Ray had numerous connections and she marketed herself well. Still, she was not able to maintain enough clientele to support herself because people were not willing to trust a black woman with their legal matters.

As noted in 1897 by Wisconsin lawyer Kate Kane Rossi, “Miss Ray … although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up … active practice.”

As a result of these societal prejudices, Ray returned to teaching after a few years of practicing law. Do you wonder want was loss because people were not comfortable with the idea of an attorney who looked like Ray?

Keisha Bell

Keisha Bell

Ray dealt with these attitudes in the 1800s. Interestingly, this is still an issue being noted and discussed by many African-American, female attorneys — as well as other minority professionals— today. What a professional load for one to carry, many times in silence.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant. www.emergingfree.com

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