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BY ROBIN FARMER
Courage Can Be Contagious: 6 Black Women Legal Trailblazers You Need to Know
Alumna Dorothy Crockett (Image: the Boston Chronicle)

From the first African American female lawyer to the most admired woman in the world, black women have an incredible legacy in the legal profession.

Here, we pay homage to just a few of them, including some of the earliest women lawyers in the country, period. (Two of which also happen to be graduates of our school!)

Charlotte E. Ray

Charlotte E. Ray paved a path as a legal trailblazer for African American women when she became the first black female lawyer in the nation in the late 19th century, admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia.

During the 1800s, at a time when segregation was legal in most of the country and law schools forbade women from entering, few women of color had access to a university education. Ray had not only the resources but also a civil rights upbringing that likely fueled her drive to become an attorney.

The daughter of an abolitionist father who owned the newspaper Colored American, Ray enrolled at Howard University as a teacher trainee but ultimately switched to law.  When she applied to the District of Columbia bar in 1872, she used the moniker C.E. Ray to disguise the fact she was female.

Ray’s practice specialized in real estate law, but according to Kate Kane Rossi, another early woman attorney, “Although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice [Ray] was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up…active practice.” 

By 1879, Ray had switched careers and worked as a public school teacher in New York.

Dorothy Crockett '31

Like Charlotte Ray, other early legal pioneers saw racism and sexism derail their legal careers despite their notable accomplishments. That was the case for Dorothy Crockett, who received her bachelor of laws (LL.B.) from Portia Law School—now New England Law | Boston.

After graduation in 1931, Crockett returned to her hometown of Providence where she became the first black woman and the seventh overall to practice in Rhode Island in 1932. Her feat was captured in this Providence Journal headline from that time: “First Negro Girl in Rhode Island to Enter the Field of Law.”

Crockett practiced family law and debt collection until the late 1930s when she married Irving Bartleson and moved to California. Despite her experience and education, the 1940 census shows she worked as a maid.  

It is unknown whether Crockett practiced law in California, or even if she wanted to, but the odds were against her. (As a reference  point, the first black woman admitted to the California bar, in 1929, did not find legal employment in the state until 1939, according to the First Women Attorneys of Rhode Island project.)

Blanche E. Braxton '21

Despite discrimination, some of the earliest black lawyers who championed the rights of others prevailed.

Blanche E. Braxton, another Portia Law School graduate, from the Class of 1921, was the first black woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar, in 1923. Not much is known about the success of her private practice, but she continued to be a trailblazer in her legal career. On March 21, 1933, she became the first black woman admitted to practice in the United States District Court in Massachusetts.

Nearly a century after Braxton achieved the first of her two records, black legal trailblazers continue to achieve historic milestones, among other accomplishments….

Barbara A. Dortch-Okara

Judge Barbara A. Dortch-Okara was both the first African American and the first woman to become Chief Justice for Administration and Management of the Trial Court when she was appointed to that position in 1998.

Governor Michael Dukakis appointed her as a judge of the Boston Municipal Court in 1984 and appointed her to the Superior Court in 1989.  After retiring from the bench in 2012, she became a professor at New England Law | Boston in 2013. Later that year, Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to chair the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission. 

Dortch-Okara has served as president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, received its 2011 Trailblazers Award, and was a founding member of the Massachusetts Black Women Attorneys.

Related: 5 Pioneering Lawyers You Should Know for Women's History Month

Deborah A. Batts

United States District Judge Deborah A. Batts is the first openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual member of the federal judiciary.

President Clinton appointed Judge Batts to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1994. A distinguished member of the bench, she has presided over several high-profile cases, including a lawsuit against former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was accused of failing to inform New Yorkers of the health risks of returning to their homes after the 9/11 attacks.

In 1973, she became an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.  In 1979, she became an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York in the Criminal Division. And in 1984, Judge Batts joined the faculty at Fordham University School of Law as the first black faculty member.

In 2001, an oil portrait of Judge Batts, commissioned by the Harvard Law School Association Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Alumni/ae Committee, was unveiled at and presented to Harvard Law School. She is also a recipient of the William M. Tendy Award from the Robert B. Fiske, Jr. Association.

Don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take a life of its own." —Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

Although she voluntarily invalidated her law license over 25 years ago, former First Lady Michelle Obama—the “most admired woman” in the world for the second year in a row—has left an indelible mark on aspiring lawyers of color in the nation and around the globe.

Following Harvard Law School, where she said she was “both brilliant and black,” Michelle Obama became an associate at the Chicago office of the law firm Sidley Austin. There she worked on marketing and intellectual property law and met her future husband, Barack.  

In 1991, seeking a more public service–oriented career path, Michelle Obama worked as an assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. From 1992 to 1993, she was the assistant commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, and in 1993 she founded the Chicago branch of Public Allies, a leadership-training program for young adults; she served as the branch’s executive director. In 1996, she became the associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago and ultimately vice president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Michelle Obama took leave in 2008 when Barack announced his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. As first lady she supported military families and ending childhood obesity. In 2018 she released the autobiography Becoming, the year’s best selling book.

Tracing their roots to the trailblazing Charlotte Ray, black women lawyers continue to inspire and break down barriers for the trailblazers of tomorrow.

Robin Farmer is a professional writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Learn more about New England Law’s history as the first law school exclusively for women.