Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a early civil rights attorney who was the first African American lawyer admitted to the District of Columbia Women’s Bar Association, has passed away at the age of 104. Her life and work as an attorney, though not as well known as other legal pioneers in the beginning of the civil rights movement, is well worth revisiting and celebrating.
Ms. Roundtree was born into poverty in Charlotte North Carolina and raised in her grandmother’s home. With the encouragement of well- known black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, she graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and later worked in Ms. Bethune’s office at the National Council of Negro Women in Washington. Ms. Roundtree was among a select few African American women who became officers in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp during World War II, where she faced down racial discrimination in the Army. After the War, she was one of five women in her class at Howard University Law School, and became a member of the District of Columbia bar in 1951.
With her partner Julius Winfield Robinson, Ms. Roundtree handled landmark litigation brought on behalf of Sarah Louse Keys before the Interstate Commerce Commission challenging busing discrimination. They convinced the ICC in 1955 to issue a ruling banning segregation in interstate busing, though it would not enforce its rule until pressured by the Kennedy administration 6 years later. She would go on to represent many poor clients in criminal cases, and was as my friend Katie McCabe described her, “a one -woman Legal Aid Society before anyone used that term.”
Ms. Roundtree was perhaps best known as a criminal defense attorney for her defense of Raymond Crump, Jr. in a sensational murder case involving the death of Washington socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer whose body was found along the C&O Canal. The prosecution called some 27 witnesses to try to establish a circumstantial case against Mr. Crump. Ms. Roundtree masterfully discredited testimony trying to identity the killer, who was described as 5’8” and 180 pounds, as her client. In her closing argument she identified her one exhibit as her 5’3” 130 pound client, telling the jurors they held the life of this “little man” in their hands. Mr. Crump was acquitted.
Ms. Roundtree went on to practice law into her 80s, in later years concentrating on family law, and serving as a mentor to many African American and female lawyers. I highly recommend her memoir, co-written with Katie McCabe and aptly titled “Justice Older Than the Law.” As Katie described her, “As a woman, and as a woman of color in an age when black lawyers had to leave the courthouse to use the bathrooms, she dared to practice before the bar of justice and was unflinching.” You can read more about Ms. Roundtree in the excellent obituary in the New York Times.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.