Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a pioneer of the civil rights movement who shattered color and gender barriers in the military, in transportation, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, died Monday in Charlotte. She was 104.
Roundtree came of age at a time when doors were not only closed, but barricaded, for blacks and women. Yet, armed with her legal education and courage, she fought to open them. “Her life is worth pausing over because she broke barriers in so many areas,” said biographer Katie McCabe on Monday.
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She and law partner Julius Winfield Robertson made civil rights history in 1955, in the case of an Army private named Sarah Keys, who was thrown off a bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white Marine. Roundtree and Robertson argued the case before the Interstate Commerce Commission and won. The ICC voted to end the “separate but equal” policy in interstate busing, but real change didn’t come until six years later, when the vote was finally enforced after the actions of the Freedom Riders sparked national attention.
Her efforts were “a spiritual mission for Dovey,” said McCabe on Monday, from her home in Washington, D.C. “Defending the black poor and being an advocate for people who were marginalized … rose from a religious conviction.”
Roundtree was born Dovey Johnson in Charlotte on April 17, 1914. After her father died in the influenza outbreak of 1919, young Dovey, her mother and her three sisters moved in with her maternal grandparents in the historic Brooklyn neighborhood.
She graduated from Charlotte’s Second Ward High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and went on to earn both law and divinity degrees at Howard University.
After graduating from Spelman, Roundtree taught school for three years in segregated Chester, S.C., and was selected by activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune (who had been a friend of Roundtree’s grandmother) to be among the first black women to train as officers in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
The military sent her on solo missions to recruit other black servicewomen in the South, and she was so successful, she far outpaced her supervisors’ expectations.
“She was a force in changing the military before it was desegregated in 1948,” said McCabe, who together with Roundtree wrote the book, “Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree,” which was published in 2009.
“She was a pioneer. She 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.”
She faced resistance as a woman of color in the military, and when she went on to law school at Howard University on the GI bill (where she was one of only five women in her class), she battled even greater opposition.
It was in the 1950s that Roundtree entered law practice in Washington, D.C., a city with a courthouse so segregated that Roundtree had to cross the street to eat or use the bathroom in the Recorder of Deeds office.
In 1961, she was among the first women to be ordained to the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and for 35 years served on the ministerial staff of Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington.
In 1962, she became the first black member of the Women’s Bar Association of D.C., leading to an explosion among members, many of whom who threatened to leave the association if she was admitted.
Despite the change she helped create in interstate travel, some of Roundtree’s biggest headlines came as the result of her defense of a Washington, D.C., day laborer named Ray Crump, accused of the 1964 murder of a Georgetown socialite and ex-wife of a CIA officer: Mary Pinchot Meyer.
In one of the most widely covered trials in Washington history, Roundtree got Crump acquitted and later became one of the city’s most well-known criminal defense attorneys.
An insulin-dependent diabetic, she returned to Charlotte in the late 1990s to be near family and friends when her eyesight began to fail.
Roundtree, married briefly to Bill Roundtree, is survived by her goddaughter, Charlene Pritchett-Stevenson of Spotsylvania, Va., and a cousin, Jerry L. Hunter, of Washington, D.C.
Pritchett-Stevenson says that Roundtree considered her a daughter, and lived with her for some time in Washington.
For Roundtree, “it all boiled down to, ‘Is there somebody I can help along the way? Do that,’” Pritchett-Stevenson says. “So I’m continuing that.”