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Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. Delivers Remarks at First Annual Charlotte E. Ray Lecture and White Collar Crime Conference at Howard University School of Law


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you so much, Dean Holley, for that introduction. And thank you to Izzy and Ben for those opening remarks.

It is such an honor to be before you all today. We have an incredible day planned, one that brings together current and former leaders from the Department of Justice, esteemed members of the defense bar, and more. And I am particularly excited that we have gathered here at Howard University School of Law, part of this historic university.

We’re assembled here shoulder to shoulder with the next generation of attorneys – the students – whom I look forward to speaking with later today. Thank you to all who have made this event possible, particularly Lisa Miller, my Deputy Assistant Attorney General, my Senior Counsel Keith Edelman, Steve Solow from Baker Botts, Preston Pugh of Crowell & Moring, Ben Wilson, and of course Dean Holley, her assistant LaShawn Reeder, and our hosts here at Howard.

I am truly humbled to deliver the first annual Charlotte E. Ray Lecture. It is a privilege to be able to speak about such an important figure in the history of our profession, and our country.

As you may know, Ms. Ray was the first Black woman in the United States to graduate from law school, and the first Black woman to be admitted to the D.C. bar. She is also one of this Law School’s many esteemed alums. But although much is not known about her life, what we do know is this – she was a trailblazer.

Ray was born in 1850 in New York. Her father, the Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, was a well-known abolitionist, minister, journalist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad.  He also served as the editor of the Colored American, an abolitionist newspaper.

As former Howard Law School Professor J. Clay Smith Jr. has written, Reverend Ray instilled the importance of education into his children. In fact, all of his children who survived to adulthood were college graduates.

Charlotte Ray enrolled at the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth here in Washington, and then became a teacher at Howard University.

But Ms. Ray yearned for more and began taking classes at Howard’s law school in the evenings, graduating in 1872. Given the incredible animus at the time, some have suggested that to gain admission to the D.C. bar, she applied just using her initials – C.E. Ray – to hide the fact that she was a woman.

Just think about how groundbreaking that accomplishment was.

When Ms. Ray was seven years old, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Dred Scott, holding that African Americans could never be citizens under the Constitution. The highest court in the land, just a few miles from here, wrote those cruel, reprehensible words that African Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.”

Just 10 years before Ms. Ray graduated from law school, slavery was legal right here in our national’s capital. The Civil War had ended just seven years before her graduation.

And although she graduated shortly after the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified, the institutional prejudices persisted. Indeed, the year after Ray was admitted to the bar in Washington, the Supreme Court decided Bradwell v. Illinois and held that the state could lawfully prevent women of all races from becoming licensed attorneys.

Justice Joseph Bradley even went so far as to write that “the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.” All of the women in my life – my mother, my wife, and my two daughters – would disagree.

Consider the weight and magnitude of those biases, which spanned society and were woven into the laws and the courts – the structural, foundational, and institutional racism and sexism that restrained all but a privileged few.

And yet, Ms. Ray pressed on. She opened her own law practice in Washington, where, according to Professor Smith, she “established a reputation for being one of the best lawyers in the area of corporations law.” She even presented a well-regarded paper on “chancery” at her commencement ceremony that was well received. And that is why I am excited that later today, we will have esteemed panelists discuss current issues in corporate and white collar crime.

To build her new business, Ms. Ray placed an advertisement in the New National Era, Frederick Douglass’ newspaper. But the discrimination against a Black woman was too powerful, and despite her prowess, Ms. Ray could not sustain her practice.

In the mold of her two sisters, she moved to New York and become a teacher in the Brooklyn public school system, where she was an advocate in the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1911.

That is what we call a trailblazer. In unchartered territories, she forged a way forward, a path that had never been walked before.

But as Ms. Ray’s career shows, those who blaze the trail cannot always walk on it all the way to the end. These figures may create the path, but it is up to all who come after to continue onward – and also to make that path wider and more accessible to those who come next.

And many have done so. From Mary Ann Shadd Cary, another Howard alum of the era; to Jane Bolin, the first female black judge; to Eunice Carter, one of the first Black female prosecutors who helped take down Lucky Luciano; to Judge Constance Baker Motley, of the Southern District of New York; and many, many others.

Like many assembled this morning, I owe my path – one of service, one steeped in white collar matters, and one where I often was the only or the first of my background and experience in the room – to Ms. Ray and the countless others who have come before me.

But it is no secret that despite the many years since Ms. Ray’s time, the work is not done.

Although Dred Scott may no longer be good law, structural inequities persist. The effects of the centuries of slavery continue to reverberate through society. For as many individual success stories you can name, there are countless others who were never able to break through the barriers of our society.

So when we honor trailblazers, we must recognize that there is more to be done. No, a trailblazer may create the path, but we must walk on it. And we must expand it for those who come next.

Make no mistake, the path that Charlotte Ray forged is far broader than simply being the first Black woman attorney in the country. Through her pursuits, she did not just earn her license to earn a living.

No, Ms. Ray did far more with her talents. She used her gifts to effect positive change in a time of great hostility. Take her representation of a battered wife in Gadley v. Gadley. Ray’s client was an illiterate, Black woman who was seeking a divorce against her husband who viciously attacked her.

In Ms. Ray’s pleading for her client – her only known writing to date – she described how, when her client was laying on the floor, the husband took an axe and ripped up the floor planks to try to cause the woman to fall to the floor below, all while threatening to break her neck.

Recall again the laws of the era. Women were afforded few, if any rights. Married women were often considered their husband’s property. But Charlotte Ray never relented on behalf of her client and pursued the case in the D.C. Supreme Court.

When her own practice could not earn enough business to survive due to the discrimination at the time, Ms. Ray continued to effect change. She taught others. She fought for women’s right to vote, continuing to press on for the greater good.

I call on all of us in the room to do the same. No matter your particular role, attorneys have a special, privileged place in our society. Through words on a page, we can lift up our communities. We can provide a voice to those who do not have one. We can detect, deter, and even prevent crime. We can zealously defend clients who need representation. We can help companies succeed while promoting compliance with the law.

We can do what Howard Law Professor Homer LaRue has done in creating the Ray Corollary Initiative. This detailed plan – named after Charlotte Ray – is designed to increase the selection of people of color to serve as arbitrators and mediators.

But there is more to be done. Around this law school, in this community, in this country – there are people who need help. Those struggling in the cycles of poverty. Those without access to basic needs like shelter and food. Those who have been victimized by crime.

So look at the path blazed by Charlotte Ray. See her perseverance. See her determination. See her passion for justice. It is our duty and honor to follow and broaden the path she has blazed for us all.

Thank you for your time today.

Updated April 11, 2023