Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a minister, army veteran, civil rights activist and attorney died on May 21 in Charlotte, N.C., at the age of 104.
Known for her groundbreaking litigation in cases such as Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company and United States v. Ray Crump, Roundtree broke the color barrier with her admittance to the all-white Women’s Bar of the District of Columbia in 1962.
Along with partners Knox, Hunter and Parker, Roundtree founded in 1970 a law firm in D.C., where she would go on to be a legal consultant for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and serve as general counsel to the National Council of Negro Women.
In 1995 she received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Howard Law Alumni Of Greater Washington, the 1995 National Bar Association Charlotte E. Ray Award, the 1996 Spirit of Spelman College Founder’s Day Award, the American Bar Association’s 2000 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, the 2004 Living Legacy Award from the Howard University School of Divinity, and the 2006 Award of Excellence from the Charlotte, North Carolina Chapter of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund to name a few.
Born Dovey Mae Johnson in Charlotte on April 17, 1914, Roundtree grew up with her parents and siblings in a household heavily influenced by the AME Church.
At the age of 5, her father, James Eliot Johnson, reportedly died from influenza, changing the trajectory of her life.
Through her grandmother Rachel Bryant Graham, a prominent figure in Charlotte’s Black community, Roundtree forged a relationship with Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as a major inspiration to Roundtree, according to several sources inspiring her to pursue a career in advocacy work.
In 1934, Roundtree began her post-secondary studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. In 1941, after graduating from college and at the onset of World War II, Roundtree sought McLeod’s assistance with a job in the burgeoning defense industry.
Roundtree landed as one of 40 African-American women trained officers in the then newly created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
In 1945, Roundtree worked with Black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph before meeting the man that reportedly inspired her law career, Pauli Murray.
She enrolled at Howard University School of Law in the fall of 1947, one of only five women in her class where civil rights played an enormous role in her matriculation with professors such as James Nabrit Jr., George E.C. Hayes and Thurgood Marshall.
In 1961, Roundtree took on a new role becoming an ordained minister in the AME Church, but never letting up on legal pursuits.
In 1964, Roundtree successfully defended Ray Crump Jr., a Black man accused of murdering Mary Pinchot Meyer, the ex-wife of a CIA officer and alleged mistress of President Kennedy. For the fee of one dollar, Roundtree presented a 30-minute case with only three witnesses, and Crump was ultimately acquitted of all charges.
Roundtree continued to advocate for children, families and the less fortunate up until her retirement from law in 1996.
In March 2013, an affordable senior living facility in southeast D.C. where she ministered was named “The Roundtree Residences” in her honor.
Her autobiography, “Justice Older than the Law,” written with National Magazine Award winner Katie McCabe, won the 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians.
In a letter made public at a July 23, 2009, tribute to Roundtree at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, first lady Michelle Obama cited Roundtree’s historic contributions to the law, the military and ministry.
“It is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow,” Obama said.