Children’s Defense Fund
When Dovey Johnson Roundtree died May 21 at age 104, our nation lost another far too unknown extraordinary groundbreaking Black woman leader. During World War II, she was part of the first cohort of Black women admitted to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Later, she became one of the first women to be ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Above all, she was a pioneering Black woman lawyer in an era when neither Black nor women lawyers were welcome in many courtrooms. She was often forced to leave the building to use the restroom or eat during her trials. But she helped pave the way for other Black women lawyers who followed in her huge footprints, seeking equal justice before the law for non-White and poor clients.
Roundtree was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1914, in the Jim Crow South – even before White women had the right to vote. Her family lived with her maternal grandfather, a minister and her grandmother, who had only a third grade education but was a community and Black women’s club leader who was friends with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was one of the role models who inspired to continue her education and she worked three jobs to put herself through the Black women’s Spelman College – our shared alma mater – where she graduated in 1938 with dual degrees in English and biology.
She began her professional life as a teacher but within a few years took a job working for Bethune at the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C. Bethune, who was working with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make sure the newly-created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps would include Black women, encouraged her to take advantage of the new opportunity. Roundtree became a captain in the corps, fighting segregation at every turn and traveling to recruit other Black women along the way.
After the war, she used the G.I. Bill to continue her education and was one of five women in her class at Howard University Law School. She knew a law degree would help her fight the daily discrimination she faced on a much larger scale.
For decades, she was a fixture in Washington, D.C. courtrooms. One of her early cases with law partner Julius Robertson was representing Sarah Keys, a Black private in the Women’s Army Corps traveling in uniform on an interstate bus who was arrested for disorderly conduct after refusing to give up her seat to a White Marine, an experience Roundtree herself had endured several years earlier. Their landmark victory led to the first ban on segregation in interstate bus transportation by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
One of her high-profile murder trials ended with the acquittal of a poor Black defendant, Raymond Crump Jr., who was wrongly accused of murdering Washington socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer.
As her main caseload evolved from criminal law to family law, Roundtree helped some of the same families she ministered to at Washington, D.C.’s Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, where she served for 35 years while practicing law. Though she never had birth children, she later said she lost count of the number of children she took in and helped raise. She was a courageously fierce and effective child and family advocate in her professional and personal life and broke down huge barriers for other Black women lawyers like me who did not have to face the same discrimination she did. But role models like her opened up new worlds of possibility and service and I am pleased that in her passing, younger generations can know of her great skills, courage, and persistence in the pursuit of justice for Black and poor people.
In a letter commemorating the release of Roundtree’s autobiography Justice Older Than the Law, first lady Michelle Obama wrote: “Ms. Roundtree set a new path for the many women who have followed her and proved once again that the vision and perseverance of a single individual can help to turn the tides of history…. She has clearly demonstrated that even in the face of enormous challenges, an unblinking belief in equality and justice will spur real change. I am inspired by Ms. Roundtree, and I hope that her story continues to motivate all Americans to fight for our shared values. It is on the shoulders of people like Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow.”
Roundtree is and should be an inspiration to all of us, especially young Black women.
Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.