Charlotte E. Ray (Fraim)

Charlotte E. Ray became the first black American woman and only the third woman of any race, admitted to the practice of law in the United States. She earned a special reputation as an authority on corporation law. Born in New York City on January 13, 1850, she was one of seven children of Charles Bennett Ray and Charlotte Augusta Burroughs Ray. Her father was a Congressional minister, abolitionist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad. Her mother came from Savannah, Georgia.
Ray decided to study law at Howard University, knowing that schools at that time did not want to admit women to the study of law Ray decided to study law at Howard University, knowing that schools at that time did not want to admit women to the study of law.

After she was accepted and began her course of study in 1869, she soon impressed others at the school with her diligence and capability. James C. Napier, a classmate and later a registrar of the United States Treasury, remembered her as “an apt scholar.” General O. O. Howard, the founder and first president of Howard University, praised her as “a 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.” Specializing in commercial law, Ray wrote a paper entitled “Chancery,” which established her as one of the ablest young experts on corporate law in the country.
Soon after receiving her law degree from Howard University in February 1872, Ray was admitted to the practice of law in the District of Columbia.
Because of her academic accomplishments, Ray expected to have a future in law. Most observers felt the same way. A May 1872 article in Woman’s Journal reflected that feeling: “In the city of Washington, where a few years ago colored women were bought and sold under sanction of law, a woman of African descent has been admitted to practice at the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. “
However, corporate leaders in Washington, D.C., simply could not accept the idea of doing business with a black woman lawyer. Despite her recognized stature as an authority on corporation law, she could not attract enough clients to maintain her law practice, so in 1879 she closed her office and returned to her native New York City. The loss of her legal expertise was lamented for years to come.
After returning to New York City, Ray taught in the Brooklyn public school system. She also attended the annual convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, became an active member of the National Association of Colored Women and married a man with the surname Fraim, about whom little is known. Charlotte Ray died on January 4, 1911.
Toady, the Greater Washington Area Chapter (GWAC), Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association, recognizes Ray’s contributions. The GWAC, a group of black women lawyers in the District of Columbia, presents an annual award named in her honor.
“In becoming a lawyer, Charlotte Ray justified the dreams of many abolitionists, woman suffragists and free black Americans…,” Dorothy Thomas wrote in Black Women in America.
“She remains an unsung pioneer.”

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