She breaks barriers

BY Keisha Bell

Have you ever wondered if there is a purpose to your life? Are there themes that seem to “follow” you, possibly indicating on which things you should focus your attention? Would you recognize them if there were?

Meet Dovey Johnson Roundtree – an attorney, civil rights activist and an army veteran. In the fall of 1947, Roundtree became one of five women to enroll at Howard University School of Law. In 1961, she became one of the first women to become an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roundtree continued to break barriers. In 1962, she integrated the all-white Women’s Bar of the District of Columbia notwithstanding strong objections from several of the association’s board members.

Born in 1914 on April 17, Roundtree is 103 years old. In the face of resistance, she continued her life’s work to obtain justice for those it oftentimes eludes.

In 1952, Roundtree and her law partner agreed to represent Sarah Keys in a case versus the Carolina Coach Company. Keys, an African-American army private, was forced to give up her seat to a white marine. This brought back memories. In 1943, a similar incident happened to Roundtree while she served in the army. The “Keys” bus desegregation case made history.

First, the case was dismissed by the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Similarly, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) first turned down hearing the matter. It did, however, eventually decide to hear it and in 1955, the ICC ruled for the first time ever that the “separate but equal” doctrine was banned in the field of interstate bus travel. This ruling laid the foundation for ending Jim Crow laws in public transportation.

Six years later, the ICC put a permanent end to segregation in travel across state lines. This happened because of pressure put on them by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Racial violence in the country was high, especially as it related to the Freedom Righters’ campaign.

What Roundtree was able to accomplish is even more remarkable when considering that it was at a time when black attorneys could not use the bathrooms inside the courthouses. In addition, it was common for black clients to be referred to white attorneys in order to increase their chances for favorable verdicts.

In 1957, Roundtree and her law partner sued a Washington, D.C. psychiatric facility in a negligence case. They won the maximum recovery under the law at that time. This victory was significant in improving the perceptions for both black attorneys, as well as, black clients. It established both credibility and worth.

In 1961, Roundtree’s law partner suddenly died and for the first time she found herself practicing law without a man’s “covering.” She acknowledged that she received a certain level of “credibility” by having a male law partner. Once he died, she admitted to feeling vulnerable at times. Still, she continued to break barriers.

In 1965, Roundtree got a not-guilty verdict in a widely covered case in which her client, Ray Crump, an African-American man accused of murdering Mary Pinchot Meyer, an alleged mistress of then-President John F. Kennedy. As a result of this win, Roundtree was highly regarded in the legal community amongst other trial lawyers and judges. More high-profile murder cases soon followed.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, visionaryLater in life Roundtree devoted her advocacy to serving children. In 1996, she retired from active legal practice.

Roundtree was influenced by the belief that the law is the greatest instrument for social change. Such influence helped to give her an understanding of her purpose. She overcame poverty, racism and gender obstacles. The world is a better place because she breaks barriers.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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