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Charlotte E. Ray was born on January 13, 1850, in New York, New York, U.S. She was a teacher and the first black woman lawyer in the United States.

Charlotte E. Ray started her studies at the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., and began to matriculate quickly over the years. By 1869 she was teaching at Howard University and had a strong interest in law. Despite the university not admitting women, Charlotte was determined. She applied under the name C.E. Ray.

 Achieving more was nothing new to Charlotte. Her father, Charles Bennet Ray, was the publisher of The Colored American a popular New York Newspaper, and always preached the importance of education. Charlotte E. Ray did not disappoint. 

Howard University is known as the Mecca and there are many notable alumni of this Historically Black University (HBCU). Howard University was founded in 1867 in Washington, D.C., and named for General Oliver Otis Howard, head of the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau, who influenced Congress to appropriate funds for the school. The university is financially supported in large part by the U.S. government but is privately controlled. Howard is ranked as a Tier 1 national university by U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) as well as other higher education benchmarking entities.   Howard is ranked #124 among National Universities by USNWR.

Charlotte E. Ray studied law at Howard University and received her degree in 1872. After completing her admission with honors to the District of Columbia bar, she became the first woman admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and the first black woman certified as a lawyer in the United States. Unfortunately a few months after beginning her practice she was forced to shut down due to discrimination of her race and gender.

Charlotte E. Ray’s Lives on

To this day, this is a major accomplishment not only for African-Americans but Americans as a whole. Many young students have shown their appreciation for Mrs. Ray through projects, videos, and author, Vashti Harrison featured her as one of the Bold Women In Black History in her “Little Leaders” Book Series wrote, sharing the life and legacy of Charlotte E. Ray.

There is also an award given out every year called The Charlotte E. Ray Award by The Minority Corporate Counsel Association with recipients who exude pride, passion, and motivation. The Charlotte E. Ray award is presented to a woman lawyer for her exceptional achievements in the legal profession and extraordinary contribution to the advancement of women in the profession. (this doesn’t have to be included as it might date the article: The 2020 Charlotte E. Ray Award was presented to Paula Boggs, Vice President, Founder of Boggs Media, LLC, at the 2020 MCCA Diversity Gala.

Like the many women recognized for The Charlotte E. Ray Award, Olivia Sedwick is a proud, ambitious, HBCU graduate in undergrad and law. Olivia graduated from Winston-Salem State University and passed the DC bar in 2018. She says attending Howard Law was a blessing.

“For me, Howard Law came along at the perfect time. It was a combination of people being placed in my path that door being opened for me. I was determined to get the best legal education that I could, outside of Howard just being a top-notch school. When I got to the school and learned about Charlotte E. Ray being the first African-American lawyer in U.S. History. Just being tied to that Howard Law legacy, to matriculate through that same path, just inspired me more and more each day. Also, knowing that the graduates from Howard’s Law School population are more women than male, in contrast, to back in Charlotte E. Ray’s time, when it was unheard of for a Black Woman to be a lawyer. It’s just a huge legacy and historical moment.”

Sedwick’s appreciation for the women who laid a path for her does not only apply to those in Law but the many graduates who continue to take their talents to new heights like our very own, Ms. Cathy Hughes. It was an honor to see Howard University named its School of Communications in honor of Radio One Founder Mrs. Cathy Hughes.

Like Cathy Hughes and many other Black Women, Charlotte E. Ray did not let the barriers placed in front of her hold her back.  In 1879 she had returned to New York City and she taught in public schools. In the late 1880s, she married a man by the surname of Fraim. There isn’t much documented about the later years of her life, but she passed away on January 4, 1911, in Woodside, New York.

The late Chadwick Boseman said it perfectly, we all have a purpose, and it must be our goal to fulfill it. Charlotte E. Ray did that and so much more. She is looking down on those who followed her and those who struck their own path, with so much joy. There is definitely a bright future ahead! 

Charlotte E. Ray: The First Black Woman Lawyer In The United States  was originally published on blackamericaweb.com

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