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Motivational Moments

2011 Women History History Makers-DC, MD, & VA

Dovey Johnson Roundtree
Civic & Religious Leadership

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, who was born April 17, 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a retired Washington, DC African American civil rights and criminal defense lawyer.  Her 1955 victory before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in the first bus desegregation case to be brought before that body resulted in the only explicit repudiation of the separate but equal doctrine in the field of interstate bus transportation by a court or federal administrative body.  That case, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, which Roundtree argued with her partner and mentor Julius Winfield Robertson, was invoked by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the 1961 Freedom Riders’ campaign in his successful battle to compel the ICC to enforce its rulings and end Jim Crow in public transportation.


Dovey was the second oldest of four daughters of James Eliot Johnson, a printer in the local offices of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Lela Bryant Johnson, a seamstress and domestic in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Dovey was inspired by the late Mary McLeod Bethune to excel academically, rise above poverty and Jim Crow, target a medical career, and work her way through Spelman College from 1934 to 1938, at the height of the Great Depression. It was Bethune to whom Roundtree turned in 1941, as the threat of war generated unprecedented numbers of jobs for African Americans in the country’s “defense preparedness” program.  Resigning the South Carolina teaching position she had taken upon college graduation in 1938, she sought out Bethune in Washington, D.C. for assistance in obtaining employment in the burgeoning defense industry.  


Service in a Jim Crow Army


In 1941, Mrs. Bethune tapped Dovey to be a part of the first class of black women to be trained as officers in the newly-created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps) during World War II.  Once admitted to the Army, Roundtree publicly challenged the racial discrimination she experienced in the rigidly segregated Army even as she recruited other African American women for WAAC assignments in the Deep South.  Traveling in uniform in the winter of 1943 without Army protection, she was evicted from a Miami bus and forced under threat of arrest to yield her seat to a white Marine.  She persisted in her recruiting, bringing African American women into the Corps in such numbers that although the women served in segregated units, the groundwork was laid for an interracial Army four years before President Harry Truman mandated the desegregation of the military by executive order in 1948.


The road toward the law


Roundtree first entered the civil rights arena in October 1945 in a nine-month postwar assignment with black labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, who was staging a national campaign to make the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) a permanent entity.  Her FEPC involvement brought her into contact with the person who would inspire her to take on the law as her life’s mission: Constitutional lawyer Pauli Murray, an impassioned civil rights activist who would go on to co-found the National Organization of Women.  Inspired by Murray’s belief that the greatest instrument for social change was the law, Roundtree enrolled at Howard University School of Law in the fall of 1947, following a brief marriage and divorce from Morehouse man, William A. Roundtree.  At Howard Law, she was one of only five women in her class.  From 1947 to 1950, she immersed herself in the assault on school segregation being mounted by Thurgood Marshall and Howard Law professors James Madison Nabrit, Jr. and George E.C. Hayes which in 1954 culminated in the epochal Brown decision (Brown v. Board of Education).  


Fighting for justice in the Nation’s Capital


Even as she fought the civil rights battle on the national level, Dovey Roundtree led the charge for justice in the courtrooms of Washington, DC.  At a time when black lawyers had to leave the courthouses to use the bathrooms and black clients were routinely referred to white attorneys in order to maximize their chances in court, Roundtree and her partner Julius Robertson broke with tradition.  They pressed the cases of black clients before white judges and juries and prevailed, winning sizeable recoveries in accident and negligence cases.  Their 1957 victory in a negligence action against a Washington DC psychiatric facility, which resulted in the maximum recovery allowable under the Federal Tort Claims Act at that time, was widely regarded as a turning point not only for black clients in the Nation’s Capital, but for attorneys as well. 


Not only did Dovey make history in the courts of Washington, D.C., but she also became one of the first women to achieve full ministerial status in the AME Church with her 1961 ordination.  Further, she was privileged to serve her denomination as special consultant for legal affairs. She also served as the General Counsel to the National Council of Negro Women. 


In 1963, Roundtree broke another barrier with her nomination for membership to the all-white Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia by attorney Joyce Hens Green (later an Associate Judge on the US District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit).  The nomination precipitated a firestorm of controversy, with several of the Association’s board members vehemently opposing Roundtree’s nomination. Only when Green demanded a vote by the full membership was Roundtree admitted to the Women’s Bar as its first black member.


Finally, Dovey was the inspiration for actress Cicely Tyson’s depiction of a maverick civil rights lawyer in the television series “Sweet Justice,” and the recipient, along with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, of the American Bar Association’s 2000 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. Roundtree currently resides in North Carolina. 


Mrs. Roundtree was nominated by Corey Morgan, Associate Editor of The Vine Newspaper.

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