Martha Gadley’s marriage was a nightmare. When her husband drank, he turned increasingly violent. One night, he used an ax to chop a hole in the floor and threatened to push her into the room below. He refused to bring her water when she was sick. When she left the house, he nailed up the entrance and put padlocks on the door.

Martha had had enough. She decided to file for divorce—a gutsy move for an illiterate black woman. But it was 1875, and the law cared little about domestic violence. Her petition was turned down and her case dismissed. So she took the unusual move of taking her divorce to a higher court—and found a champion in an equally unusual attorney, Charlotte E. Ray.

Ray wasn’t just any lawyer. She was one of just a handful of women who practiced law in the United States. She wasn’t just one of the first female lawyers, either: She is thought to be the country’s first black woman lawyer. In a vividly wordedpetition, Ray took Martha’s plea to the District of Columbia Supreme Court, and managed toscore a rare victory on Martha’s behalf.

Though little is known about Charlotte E. Ray’s life, what historians do know is peppered with the same kind of courage. During the 19th century, women were largely barred from the legal profession. They were forbidden from obtaining licenses to practice law in many areas and couldn’t join the professional associations that would allow them to advance in their careers. As historian Susan Erlich Martinnotes, law was controlled by white men who kept women and people of color from studying law, practicing it and finding jobs within the profession.

That didn’t stop pioneering women from trying to break in anyway. These groundbreaking women challenged precedent by showing that they were capable of learning and practicing law. That presented another hurdle: Few women had access to a university education and many colleges with law schools overtly forbade women from entering.

For Charlotte Ray, who was raised in a progressive family, education was the key to her dream of becoming a lawyer. Her father, Charles Bennett Ray, was a prominent abolitionist and clergyman who edited The Colored American, one of the first newspapers published by and for African-Americans. Charles knew the value of education and enrolled his daughter in the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, one of the only schools that would teach young black women. Though theschool taught domestic skills, it was also focused on training teachers and Charlotte went on to enroll in Howard University as a teacher trainee.

Howard University
Howard University, 1868. (Credit: NYPL/Smith Collection/Getty Images).

But Ray had other dreams. What she really wanted was to practice law. Since Howard didn’t discriminate on any basis, she was able to take law classes, even though she knew that women weren’t allowed on the bar of the District of Columbia, where she wanted to practice. And so, according to at least one source, she took her bar exams and applied anyway.

“I have been told that her admission to the bar was secured by a clever ruse, her name being sent in with her classmates as C.E. Ray,” wrote Lelia J. Robinson in 1890, “although there was some commotion when it was discovered that one of the applicants was a woman.”

Robinson’s claim has been disputed by other historians, who say that the bar had recently decided to admit women, and it’s still not clear just how Ray was admitted to the bar. But she was, making her not just Howard’s first black woman legal graduate, but one of just a small handful of women who practiced law at the time when she gained admission in 1872.

Little is known about Ray’s legal practice—only that it ended quickly due to prejudice against both black people and women. Shortly after her victory in Martha Gadley’s case, Ray was forced to close her practice. Being a black, female lawyer was so novel at the time that Ray faced prejudice and could not secure enough clients. By the 1880s, she moved to New York and became a public school teacher. She remained active in public affairs, though, as an ardentsupporter both of women’s suffrage and equality for black women.

Despite Ray’s pioneering accomplishments, the legal profession remained largely hostile to black women over the years. Even today, 85 percent of attorneysare white, and just 5 percent are black. And minority women still face a significantwage gap compared to their white male counterparts.