Charlotte E. Ray, the first African American woman to practice law in the United States, was born on January 13, 1850 in New York City, New York. Her father, Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was a prominent New York abolitionist and minister who served as pastor of the Bethesda Congregational Church and was the owner of the Colored American, one of the leading African American newspapers of the antebellum era. Her mother, Charlotte Augusta Burroughs Ray, was raised in Savannah, Georgia. Charlotte Ray was the youngest of three girls.
Ray spent her first years in New York City but by 1850 her parents had moved to Washington, D.C. where she entered the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, the only school in the Washington, D.C. area that allowed African American girls to become pupils.
Ray graduated from the Institution in 1869 at the age of 19. Howard University, then about four years old, hired her as a teacher for its Preparatory and Normal Department, the part of the university that trained school teachers. Ray, however, was not satisfied with training others to teach. Her ambition instead was to attend the university’s law school. Howard University’s Law School, however, discouraged women from enrolling and Ray was forced to apply under the name “C.E. Ray” to disguise her gender. University officials reluctantly accepted her application and she attended classes while continuing to teach in the Preparatory and Normal Department. Ray matriculated at the law school for three years, from 1869 to 1872 where she concentrated on commercial law. Upon completion of the program in 1872 Ray became the first black woman to graduate from an American law school and receive a law degree. In fact she was only the third American woman of any race to complete law school.