Officer, lawyer and minister who blazed a trail for black women
Dovey Johnson Roundtree obituary: She helped secure ban on racial segregation in transport
Dovey Johnson Roundtree
Born: April 17th, 1914; Died: May 21st, 2018
Born to a family of slender means in the Jim Crow South, Roundtree – or the Rev Dovey Johnson Roundtree, as she was long formally known – was instrumental in winning a spate of advances for blacks and women in mid-20th century America, blazing trails in the military, the legal profession and the ministry.
As an inaugural member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps), she became, in 1942, one of the first women of any race to be commissioned an Army officer. Attaining the rank of captain, she personally recruited scores of African-American women for wartime Army service.
As a Washington lawyer, she helped secure a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel in a case that originated in 1952 — three years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
As a cleric, Roundtree was one of the first women to be ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Yet for all her perseverance, and all her prowess, Roundtree remained, by temperament, choice and political circumstance, comparatively unknown.
“One has to start with the fact – and I think it’s an acknowledged fact – that the civil rights movement was notoriously sexist,” Katie McCabe, the co-author of Roundtree’s memoir, Justice Older Than the Law, said in 2016. “There were many men who did not appreciate being ground up into hamburger meat by Dovey Roundtree. There are many, many white lawyers – male – in Washington who were humiliated by having been beaten by a black woman. And I think that played out in a number of ways. And one of those ways has been a diminution in the recognition that I think her accomplishments merit.”
The second of four daughters of James Eliot Johnson, a printer, and Lela (Bryant) Johnson, a domestic, Dovey Mae Johnson was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 17th, 1914. Her father died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, and Dovey, her mother and sisters were taken in by her maternal grandparents, the Rev Clyde L Graham, a minister in the AME Zion Church, and Rachel Bryant Graham.
Reared in her grandfather’s shotgun-shack parsonage in one of Charlotte’s black districts, Dovey was profoundly influenced by her grandmother, who, despite having only a third-grade education, became a revered member of the community.
Born not long after the civil war ended, Rachel Graham had weathered the death of her first husband at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. She lived with feet so badly crippled that she was in constant pain: when she was a teenager, she had thwarted a white man’s attempts to rape her by running. Enraged, he stomped on her feet, shattering them, to ensure she would never run again.
Long afterward, Roundtree recalled huddling beneath her grandmother’s kitchen table with her mother and sisters as Klansmen raged through their community on horseback. Rachel Graham stood guard on the front porch, wielding her household broom as the hooded riders thundered by. It was an index of her grandmother’s formidable mien, Roundtree said, that it did not occur to her until years later how slender an armament a broom really was.
Encouraged by a friend of her grandmother’s, the distinguished black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, young Dovey Johnson set her sights on becoming a doctor. She enrolled at Spelman College, the Atlanta women’s college then known as the black Vassar.
There, Roundtree later wrote, “I was in my own way an outsider – a poor working student in a sea of black privilege.” She held three simultaneous jobs, including domestic work for a white family, in order to remain in school. She graduated in 1938 with a double major in English and biology.
With no money for medical school, she spent the next three years teaching seventh and eighth grade in Chester, South Carolina. In 1941, she made her way to Washington and Bethune’s office at the National Council of Negro Women.
Cohort of women
Bethune and her close friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, were just then pressing for the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which would admit a cohort of women for training as Army officers. Bethune helped ensure that 40 of the 440 women in that cohort would be black.
The corps was established in May 1942 and Dovey Johnson joined up, reporting for training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa.
In 1947, she entered Howard University’s law school on the GI Bill, one of only five women in her class. Law quickly became a consuming passion, so much so that it cost her her marriage to her college sweetheart, William A Roundtree, whom she had wed in 1946. The couple separated after eight months and divorced not long afterwards.
Roundtree graduated from law school in 1950. Admitted to the District of Columbia bar the next year, she went into practice with a classmate, Julius Winfield Robertson. In 1962, despite a storm of protest from its members, she became the first African-American admitted to the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia.
There was little remunerative work for Robertson & Roundtree at first. Committed to helping disenfranchised clients, the partners were often paid, Roundtree recalled in a 1994 interview, with “two dozen eggs, a bag of greens and leftover poundcake”. Robertson moonlighted on the night shift at the post office.
Then, in 1952, they took on a case that would quietly become a landmark: Sarah Keys v Carolina Coach Co.
Sarah Louise Keys was a young black private in the Women’s Army Corps. That year, in uniform, she had travelled by bus from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to her home in North Carolina.
In Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, a new driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white Marine, just as Roundtree had been told to do years before. Keys demurred and was arrested and jailed for disorderly conduct.
Keys’s lawsuit sought to challenge the country’s long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine. Confirmed by the Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson – a seminal decision of 1896 that has long been considered one of the court’s least felicitous – the doctrine enfranchised the separation of the races in public facilities.
In early 1953, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the Keys suit on jurisdictional grounds. But because Keys’s journey had involved the crossing of state lines, Roundtree and Robertson realised that they might profitably plead the case before the Interstate Commerce Commission. A federal agency, the commission was charged with regulating railroads, buses and the like.
In 1954, the commission rejected their case. But by then, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, handed down that year, had outlawed segregation in public schools. Roundtree and Robertson approached the commission again, arguing that the Brown decision should apply equally to transportation.
On November 7th, 1955, the commission issued its decision, banning segregation on interstate bus travel. Though the ruling would not be enforced for six years – in 1961, amid the violence against Freedom Riders in the South, the US attorney general, Robert F Kennedy, pressured the commission to do so – it was a civil rights watershed.
“The Negro traveller will now have the freedom to ride (on train or bus) and the freedom to wait (in waiting rooms and at stations) as a human being,” columnist Max Lerner wrote in the New York Post after the ruling. “I light a candle in my heart with the knowledge that, white and black alike, we can now ride together across the state lines of 48 states.”
Roundtree’s survivors include her cousin and law partner Jerry L Hunter; her goddaughter Charlene Pritchett-Stevenson, whom she considered a daughter; and Pritchett-Stevenson’s son, James Andrew Pritchett.