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July 29, 2020 Voices

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

By Michele Coleman Mayes

Michele Coleman Mayes, 2014–17 chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, has held senior legal positions at Allstate Corporation, Pitney Bowes, Inc., Colgate-Palmolive Company, and Unisys Corporation. She currently serves as the vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the New York Public Library. Her career as an in-house counsel has given her the platform to speak out against biases and challenges encountered by women of color in the legal field.

In 2009, Mayes was named one of the National Law Journal’s “Most Influential General Counsels,” and in 2012, she was honored with the American Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) presented her with its very first Charlotte E. Ray Award, given to a woman lawyer for her exceptional achievements in the legal profession and extraordinary contribution to the advancement of women in the profession. For this issue of Perspectives, we showcase her remarks upon receiving the award (edited slightly for print).

I must also admit that I knew something about Charlotte E. Ray because of the years that I’ve been in this space. As I found out more about her, a poem, “Harlem,” kept running through my mind:

What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes

What did I know about Charlotte Ray? I knew she was born in New York in January 1850. I knew that she used her ingenuity to make sure she was admitted into Howard University law school. So, the story goes, she didn’t use her full name—she used her initials, “C. E. Ray.” (Needless to say, she got in.) I also knew that she was the first black woman lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to the bar in April 1872—at the ripe age of 22.

But then I had to dig a little deeper—and this is when it pays off to work for the New York Public Library. The Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is part of the New York Public Library. So, I phoned up its director, Mary Yearwood, and asked if she could help me find out more about Charlotte E. Ray—and that’s all I had to say.

I learned that her father, Charles Bennett Ray, was quite the activist. He attended college and became a journalist, a minister, and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As they say, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Both her father and mother knew the importance of education. Ray attended the Institution for Education for Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. She then taught school at Howard University and probably got the idea that, maybe, law school wasn’t a bad idea.

The founder of Howard, General O. O. Howard, had this to say in his 1870 annual report about Miss Ray: “A trustee of the law school was amazed to find a colored woman who read us a thesis on corporations and not copied from the books but from her brain a clear, incisive analysis of one of the most delicate legal questions.” So, there’s some irony that this woman decided to focus on corporations and we’re here this evening with the MCCA.

During law school, she continued to focus on corporations and real estate. My sense from some of the quotes I read about her is that she wasn’t just an excellent student. She was probably a brilliant student. But she was still just a “girl.” She graduated and then was admitted to the bar. When she passed the bar, there was an article written about her in May of 1872 in the Woman’s Journal:

In the city of Washington, where a few years ago colored women were bought and sold under sanction of law, a woman of African descent has been admitted to practice at the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Miss Charlotte E Ray, who has the honor of being the first lady lawyer in Washington, is a graduate of the College of Law of Howard University and is said to be a dusky mulatto possessing quite an intellect countenance. She doubtless has a fine mind and deserves success.

If only that were true.

She opened up her own law practice in D.C., but, not that many years later, she closed it. By 1879, she had returned to New York, the state of her birth. A friend of hers, Kate Rossi, said, “In spite of outstanding achievement and recognition as a legal authority on corporation law, Ray was unable to maintain a law practice because of the lack of business.”

We know that when she came back to New York, she went on to work at the Brooklyn Public Schools along with two of her younger sisters. We also know that she eventually got married and became a suffragist—not unlike two other women who were alive during her lifetime, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells Barnett, who was also an anti-lynching crusader. She died two days before her 61st birthday and is buried in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Also in that resting place is Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (yes, that one), Jackie Robinson, and Eubie Blake. The odd thing about the website for this cemetery is that if you Google it (and it can be a verb!), her name doesn’t show up. These black males are touted as resting in the cemetery, but not Miss Ray.

So, we know her life ended in 1911, but I dare say not her influence. I choose to believe that while working in the Brooklyn Public School System, she kindled the fire and ambition in those black children whose lives, I will wager, she undoubtedly touched. The first question I asked at the beginning of my remarks is: What happens to a dream deferred? Dreams course through the veins of all those who follow. That’s what I choose to believe. I say thank you to MCCA (for the award). Thank you to Charlotte E. Ray for the dream. And I say to all of you: Have a dream. Have a dream and fight for it.

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Michele Coleman Mayes


Michele Coleman Mayes is vice president, general counsel, and secretary for the New York Public Library. She joined NYPL in August 2012 after serving as executive vice president and general counsel for Allstate Insurance Company since 2007.