Attorney Dovey Mae Johnson Roundtree was memorialized by those who knew and admired her at a ceremony held Tuesday, June 5 at Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast. The beloved and respected minister, army veteran, civil rights activist and attorney died on May 21 in Charlotte, N.C. at the age of 104.
The choir sang, and officials spoke to nearly 200 fellow lawyers, leaders of the AME Church, colleagues from the National Council of Negro Women, law students, church members and others who reflected on Roundtree’s life and legacy. A photo of her stood near the pulpit, and a white dove carved into eight stained glass windows around the church served as a reminder of her influence over the future of the law and religion.
“During a time when it was neither popular nor fashionable to stand tall as an African American female attorney, Attorney Roundtree opened the door and forged her way into the arena of civil rights law. She was unapologetic in her quest to pursue justice for all people,” said Reverend Glenda F. Hodges, assistant secretary of the AME Church Judicial Board.
Hodges reflected on Roundtree’s “significant firsts” including becoming the first female general counsel of the AME Church, the first of 40 women in the first class of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the first African American member of D.C. Women’s Bar Association, and one of the first women ordained in AME church.
“Because of her monumental work in the 1955 bus desegregation victory before the Interstate Transportation Commission in the case of Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, Roundtree helped abolish separate but equal in interstate transportation, which allowed U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy a tool to combat southern resistance to the Freedom Riders campaign,” Hodges said.
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 the alleged mistress of President Kennedy. For the fee of one dollar, Roundtree presented a 30-minute case with only three witnesses — Crump was acquitted of all charges.
Roundtree continued to advocate for children, families and the less fortunate up until her retirement from the law in 1996. Hodges said, “She remained undaunted in the quest to save the generation which followed her from what she labeled the ‘demon of violence’.”
Roundtree was a minister at Allen Chapel AME, and in March 2013, an affordable senior living facility in Southeast, D.C. was named “The Roundtree Residences” in her honor.
Reverend John Thomas, also a minister at Allen, said it was Reverend Roundtree that gave the 11 o’clock sermon at Allen AME in October 1983, that “I came up and took her hand, and I joined this church.”
Her favorite song, Thomas said, was Somehow I Made It. “And after I read her book, I understood. She faced adversity all of her life, and she truly lived a legacy of service to others.”
Dr. Shirley Jackson, who represented the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), urged everyone to read Roundtree’s autobiography Justice Older than the Law, written with National Magazine Award winner Katie McCabe. The book won the 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians.
Jackson praised Roundtree for her work with Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, founder of NCNW general counsel, and for her legal acumen needed to support the purchase of the NCNW headquarters, under the leadership of Dr. Dorothy I. Height, at 6th & Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
“She exhibited her skills in the ‘Art of the Deal,’” Jackson said. “She and her legal team negotiated a really good purchase deal and put together air-tight legal documents that prevented others who did not want to see us in that property from being able to wiggle us out. She was a legal mastermind.”
Jackson also spoke of Roundtree’s lack of wealth coupled with her commitment to serving the less fortunate. To help cover the church’s expenses, Jackson said, Roundtree “would go out on speaking engagements after a challenging day in court and give what she was paid to the church to pay its bills. Allen had a primary place in her heart.”
Born Dovey Mae Johnson in Charlotte, N.C. 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 five, 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.
In 1934, Roundtree began her post-secondary studies at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Roundtree enrolled at Howard University School of Law in the fall of 1947. There civil rights played an enormous role in her matriculation with professors like James Nabrit Jr., George E.C. Hayes, and Thurgood Marshall. She also received her divinity degree from Howard.
“For years we marked her birthday as the oldest living graduate,” said HU associate dean Lisa Crooms-Robinson. “She is a forbearer on whose shoulders we at Howard University School of Law stand. We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for being our role model, for paving the way for us, for showing us how to be a social engineer and how to make a way when it appears to be no way at all.”
Sarafina Wright contributed to this article.