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Remembering Legal Trailblazer and Civil Rights Pioneer Dovey Johnson Roundtree

By Jeffery Leon

May 31, 2018

Dovey Johnson Roundtree
Credit: Public Domain

When news broke of the passing of attorney and civil rights activist Dovey Johnson Roundtree on May 21, the Washington, D.C., legal community paid tribute to a legal legend who tirelessly fought against discrimination and advocated for the disenfranchised. Roundtree was 104.

A criminal defense lawyer who spent much of her service in Washington, D.C., Roundtree was a trailblazer in her nearly five decades-long career. She played a key role in the landmark civil rights case Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, which explicitly rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine in interstate bus travel.

“Ms. Roundtree displayed a combination of grit and ingenuity in the face of long odds that we can’t help but admire,” D.C. Bar President Patrick McGlone said. “And, equally laudable, she maintained her humility as she made great accomplishments. Bar organizations must be thankful for Ms. Roundtree’s courage. She helped push forward the integration of our bars and the abandonment of unfair exclusionary practices.”

In 1962 Roundtree broke the color barrier in the Washington legal community by becoming the first African American member of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia (WBADC).

“Dovey was a trailblazer not only for women, but also as a civil rights activist. We are saddened by her loss, but we are committed to honoring her legacy by marching the trail she blazed to overcome obstacles to diversity,” said Kerri M. Castellini, current president of the WBADC.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1914, Roundtree attended Spelman College in 1938 and briefly taught school in South Carolina before moving to Washington, D.C. Roundtree became a protégé of famed educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, who selected Roundtree for the first class of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

It was during her service in the military that Roundtree encountered racial discrimination first hand. While on a bus trip in 1943, she was forced to give up her seat to a white Marine. These types of situations galvanized Roundtree’s desegregation efforts.

Roundtree would enroll at Howard University School of Law in 1947, one of just five women in her class, and enmeshed herself in civil rights causes, including desegregation of the military and public schools.

Entering law practice in the early 1950s, Roundtree partnered with her mentor Julius Robertson and was one of very few black women practicing law at the time. Roundtree and Robertson took up the cause of helping disadvantaged black clients and pushed for their cases to be heard in front of white judges, often working for little or no money in the process. After Robertson’s passing in 1961, Roundtree took over the practice and worked solo for the next several years.

In 1964 Roundtree represented Ray Crump, a black laborer accused of murdering Georgetown socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer. Roundtree probed the circumstantial evidence and revealed the inconsistencies of the investigation, leading to Crump’s acquittal.

In 1970 Roundtree cofounded a new firm, Roundtree, Knox, Hunter and Parker, and would later move into family law. She also preached at Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast D.C. and would assist youth and families in the neighborhood. Roundtree also mentored future generations of attorneys. She retired from practicing law in 1996.

“From her legal triumphs to her tireless effort to end segregation and advocate for those in desperate need, she was truly an embodiment of everything that GWAC stands for and strives to be,” said Janea Hawkins, president of the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the National Bar Association.