Special to the AmNews
Described by some as a “one-woman legal aid society,” Dovey Johnson Roundtree shattered several color and gender barriers in her long and productive career. Whether as an attorney, in the military or in the religious realm, Roundtree overcame challenges, leaving a legacy of civil rights victories. She died Monday in Charlotte, N.C. She was 104.
If you have not heard of her, perhaps that stands to reason for such a self-effacing but a nonetheless unwavering advocate for justice and equality. In the same way she shied away from the spotlight, it invariably found her because she threw herself without reservation into social and cultural affairs, transcending the restrictions imposed by society or institutions.
She was born Dovey Johnson in Charlotte April 17, 1914. Her father was a victim of the massive influenza epidemic in 1919, in which a half million people perished. With her mother and siblings, she moved to Brooklyn to live with her maternal grandparents.
After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and began teaching in Chester, S.C. It was during this tenure that she was chosen by the renowned Mary McLeod Bethune to be among the first African-American women to be trained as officers in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps that was just being formed.
Rising to the rank of captain, Roundtree was dispatched to convince other Black women to join the WAAC, and her success in this assignment astonished even her superiors.
According to Katie McCabe, the co-author of Roundtree’s book, “Justice Older Than the Law—The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree” (2009), “she was a force in changing the military before it was desegregated in 1948. “She was a pioneer … and took the brunt of it, right in the gut, in an era when the military didn’t want Black men—and they didn’t want women at all.”
The opposition and racist hostility she often encountered in the military, to some extent, prepared her for the resistance she faced when, with GI Bill tuition assistance, she entered law school at Howard University. She was one of only five women in her class.
Her situation was no different once she had a law degree and began practicing in the nation’s capital, where segregation greeted her at every turn, in and out of the courtroom.
Undaunted and absolutely fearless, Roundtree with her law partner, Julius Winfield Robertson, took on a case that would bring them national attention in 1955, the same year Rosa Parks defied Jim Crow in Montgomery and Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi. When Sarah Keys, an Army
private, was thrown off a bus for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white Marine, Roundtree and Robertson came to her defense. They argued the case before the Interstate Commerce Commission and won.
It was a victory foreshadowed the determination and successes of the Freedom Riders, who intensified the civil rights breakthrough several years later. Despite her growing law practice, the energetic Roundtree found time to devote to her spiritual life, becoming an ordained minister, among the first in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and beginning a 35-year association with Allen Chapel in Washington. A year later, in 1962, she was the first Black member of the Women’s Bar Association of D.C. and this breakthrough caused quite an eruption within the organization.
A larger disruption would occur in 1964, when she represented Ray Crump, a Black man charged with killing Mary Pinchot Meyer, a white socialite and the ex-wife of a CIA officer. Using a number of clever gambits and legal tactics in the courtroom, Roundtree was able to win an acquittal for Crump, mainly by keeping him off the witness stand and playing on the sympathies of the jurors. This victory brought her even greater notoriety and accolades.
Her marriage to William Roundtree was short-lived although she kept his name.
The law firm she started with Robertson remained active, even as her participation became limited with age and the onset of diabetes that later left her blind.
Roundtree is survived by her goddaughter, Charlene Pritchett-Stevenson, who she embraced as her daughter, of Spotsylvania, Va., and a cousin, Jerry L. Hunter, of Washington, D.C.