February 27, 2020
Silence blanketed the courtroom as all eyes focused on Charlotte. She glanced at her client, Martha, whose eyes returned a look of both confidence and plea for hope. Lower courts dismissed Martha's case, but Charlotte knew how important it was on so many levels. She understood its vital significance as she prepared to make her argument in front of the District of Columbus Supreme Court.
Pushing her chair back from the table, Charlotte stood and began laying out her case for the court. As she spoke, her voice was strong and she delivered her powerful words fearlessly. When she finished, she knew at least for a moment, those in the room saw her for who she was. They judged her by the content of her character and dismissed the color of her skin.
At the time of Charlotte E. Ray’s birth in New York City around 1850, the abolition movement was in full swing and her father, Charles Bennett Ray, was at the heart of it. A prominent abolitionist leader, the Congregational Church pastor also published the African-American newspaper The Colored American, which he used to advocate for “the moral, social and political elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the slaves.” In 1840, Ray used his paper to promote the newly formed Liberty Party, supported by fellow abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet. (see , , , , and )
A member of the American Anti-Slavery Society since 1833, Ray was an Underground Railroad conductor in New York. Following Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglass’ examples of a peaceful path to abolition, Ray raised his seven children with the same principles. (see ) Knowing the best way to bring forth change was a strong education, Ray and his wife Charlotte Augusta Burroughs sought out a good school that would accept not only females, but black females. They sent their children to Washington D.C. where they enrolled in the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth.
As was common at the time, such institutions focused on preparing students to be teachers. When Charlotte graduated in 1869, she accepted a teaching position in the Howard Normal and Theological School for the Education of Teachers and Preachers, a recently established black school in Washington resulting from the beginning of the Reconstruction Era. When General Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War hero and founder of the private university, established the school in 1867, it accepted blacks and whites, males and females, from the moment it opened its doors. When Howard formed their law school the year Ray arrived to teach, she decided to enroll herself.
Legend records that Charlotte signed her application "C. E. Ray" to disguise her gender until after her admittance. Since the school openly accepted women and blacks, it seems unnecessary. However, some claim the review board may have not been quite so impartial in following their founding policy. Regardless, she was accepted and upon her graduation on February 27, 1872, Charlotte became the first black woman to receive a law degree. On March 2, she became the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar as well as admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District on April 23. As word of her achievements spread throughout the states, women desiring to become lawyers used her admittances as a precedent to obtain their own entry into state bars.
Soon after, Charlotte opened her own private practice in commercial law. She advertised in Frederick Douglass’ Washington D.C. paper, New National Era yet few people were ready for a woman, let along a black one, to represent them in court. Yet one woman was.
After years of abuse from a husband who tried to kill her, Martha Gadley filed for divorce. The uneducated black woman was ignored by lower courts, who dismissed most domestic violence cases at the time. Her persistence to fight for her liberty was equaled by Charlotte’s determination to get it for her. Charlotte accepted Martha's case and filed Gadley vs. Gadley on June 3, 1875.
Stirring the court with vivid details of Mr. Gadley’s abusive behavior spurred on by alcohol, Charlotte won Martha’s case. Despite winning an impressive rare victory for a wife at the time, clients failed to seek Charlotte’s help. Reluctantly, she closed up shop in 1879 and returned to New York to live with her family. She resumed a teaching career in the Brooklyn public school system while her two sisters, Henrietta Cordelia and Florence, also taught. However, it wasn't long before another Ray daughter made a name for herself. During the 1876 unveiling ceremony of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C., Henrietta's ode "Lincoln" was read. She eventually left teaching to become a poetess full time under the name "Cordelia Ray".
As a teacher, Charlotte continued the fight for women’s suffrage as well as equal and civil rights. (see and ) In 1876, Charlotte participated in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association Convention as a delegate. Just before the turn of the century, she joined the National Association of Colored Women.
Delaware marriage records indicate Charlotte married Daniel W. Frame (Fraim) on April 2, 1882, in Sussex County, yet nothing else is known of the marriage. It is believed the couple did not have any children nor did they stay together. Charlotte died January 4, 1911, in Woodside, New York, and is buried near her family in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, under the name Fraim.
Liberty, during the Reconstruction Era and before Jim Crow laws in the Democrat led South took hold, blacks made amazing advances in society. (see and ) Unfortunately, we don't celebrate them nearly enough. However, in 1989, the Women Lawyers division of the National Bar Association finally recognized Charlotte by establishing the Charlotte E. Ray Award. It is presented annually to esteemed female attorneys.
Even before the Civil War, as blacks made their mark in history, a consistent theme surfaced, which came from the abolition movement. Everyone knew the path to getting ahead started with a good, solid eduction. Because of Charlotte's commitment to this philosophy, she broke multiple barriers for women, both black and white, in the legal field. However, sometimes the paths we forge are not for us, but for those behind us, to travel. While Charlotte's private practice may not have become the personal success she hoped for, it sent a shock wave across the fruited plains. Motivated by her own ambitions, the result of her achievements opened doors for countless other women throughout the nation so they could live out their dreams.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades, Americans have taken education for granted. We became lazy in our responsibilities to closely monitor our schools and allowed leftists with a progressive and socialist agenda to indoctrinate our children. (see ) Where Charlotte attended school to take full advantage of her freedom, students today are taught to want the shackles of big government oversight and control placed around their necks.
A good, solid education trains people how to think, not what to think. Study those innovators who used their freedom to explore new ideas and used capitalism, to help themselves and as a result, others. (see , , and ) Honor those who fought for their liberty at all costs, a liberty which we now benefit from. Don't get bogged down by endless and useless lectures on climate change, LGBTQ+ issues, animal rights, and social justice, which don't ever advance anything, especially society. They only demand you accept their point of view and to think what they want you to or risk being forever ostracized and possibly physically harmed. (see , and )
Charlotte's story is one of courage and fortitude, without even a notion of seeking victimhood status. While progressives applaud Colin Kaepernick’s "bravery" for kneeling for the flag, a flag thousands sacrificed for to give him the freedom to do it, take the high road, Liberty, and honor those like Charlotte who are truly heroic and deserve our praise. (see and )
That’s my 2 cents.
RAISING THE BAR