Regardless of how her advanced schooling began, Charlotte became the first woman graduate of the Howard University School of Law on Feb. 27, 1872. Within days, she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar.
“In 1872 Charlotte E. Ray became the first Black woman lawyer in the United States and the first woman lawyer in the District of Columbia,” Karen Berger Morello reports in “Women’s Entry into the Legal Profession” published in a 1983 issue of American University Law Review. “The trustees at Howard Law School were stunned watching ‘this colored woman who read us a thesis on corporations, not copied from the books but from her brain, a clear incisive analysis of one of the most delicate legal questions.’”
Later in 1872, Charlotte founded her private practice. She advertised her legal services in the New National Era, the publication owned and initially edited by Frederick Douglass until his son, Lewis H. Douglass, took over around this same time. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s legal career was a short one. Like her father at Wesleyan before her, she represented the sort of progress that meets resistance from the status quo. As Erin Blakemore writes for History, “Being a black, female lawyer was so novel at the time that Ray faced prejudice and could not secure enough clients.”
But before her legal career ended, she had one, big case.
Martha Gadley’s married life was a nightmare. “[O]ne night while said petitioner was in bed, said defendant took hold of the bedstead at the footboard, and broke it to pieces, so that said petitioner was compelled to lie on the floor,” Charlotte wrote in 1875 in her even, sinuous handwriting of her client Martha and the defendant, Martha’s abusive husband. “[S]aid defendant then went down stairs, got an ax and returning, ripped up the planks in the floor by where said petitioner was lying, for the purpose of causing said petitioner to fall into the room below, saying that he would break her neck.”
In a special feature in the Howard Law Journal titled “Charlotte E. Ray Pleads Before Court,” Professor of Law J. Clay Smith Jr., notes that, “Written accounts have suggested that Ms. Ray practiced corporate law. However, until now no writings by her have ever been discovered or published confirming that she actually practiced law in the courts. ... The purpose of this piece is to lay to rest any doubt that Ms. Ray practiced law. The pleading that follows, filed by Ray, is conclusive that Ray's admission to the bar, as suggested by some, was not clandestine.” This feature from the year 2000 contains a transcript of the Gadley v. Gadley pleading that Charlotte filed before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on June 3, 1875.
Martha Gadley’s earlier efforts to separate from her violent husband had been dismissed by the lower courts. As an illiterate Black woman, she was about as powerless as a person could be in the United States legal system. As Erin Blakemore notes, “It was 1875, and the law cared little about domestic violence.” In her pursuit of an uncommon ruling, Martha sought the assistance of an uncommon lawyer. Charlotte and Martha took their appeal to the District of Columbia Supreme Court, fighting for Martha’s right to divorce.
Martha had been married only three years. Her husband was vicious, even though, as Charlotte stated on the court document, she had “striven by all means in her power to be to said defendant a dutiful, true and affectionate wife. ... [S]aid petitioner prays that your honorable court may pass a decree divorcing the said petitioner from the bond of matrimony with the said defendant, and granting her such other and further relief as the nature of the case may require and the court have power to grant.”
Charlotte’s filing clearly describes the state of Martha’s marriage, cogently and poignantly outlining her husband’s violence, alcoholism, and emotional cruelty. “[W]hile said petitioner was out said defendant returned and finding said petitioner absent, nailed up the two doors of the house in which said defendant and said petitioner were then residing, put a padlock on one door, bolted the other, and threw said petitioner's clothing out of the window.”
The petition was a success and Martha was granted her sought-after divorce. The filing endures as “the first known writing, publication of a pleading and verified signature of Charlotte E. Ray ever discovered and reproduced.”
Charlotte’s thread in history becomes more obscure after this event. She closed her law practice in 1879 and returned to teaching. Ever her parents’ daughter, however, her activism never stopped. She worked with both the National Woman Suffrage Association and she joined the National Association of Colored Women. In the late 1880s, when Charlotte herself was in her late 30s, she married a man with the surname of Fraim. The couple moved to Woodside, Long Island, in 1897.
“I must also admit that I knew something about Charlotte E. Ray because of the years that I’ve been in this space,” Michele Coleman Mayes, a legal professional herself, said in a 2018 speech, later published in a 2020 issue of Perspectives. “As I found out more about her, a poem, ‘Harlem,’ kept running through my mind: