A life worth celebrating
A common refrain in the comments of New York Times readers about the obituary of Dovey Johnson Roundtree was astonishment that they never had heard about the inspiring life of this accomplished District of Columbia lawyer and pioneer of civil rights. The reasons for that are clear.
She was black. She was a woman raised in the Jim Crow South. She lived and worked in a Washington ruled by white men. She wasn’t someone likely to get recognition, which makes all the more remarkable her determination and her achievements in helping marginalised people tear down barriers.
Roundtree, who died on May 21 at the age of 104 in an assisted-living facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, had a career that spanned nearly half a century in the legal profession, the military and the ministry. The coauthor of her autobiography used the word “unflinching” to describe her career in the courtroom, but it could just as well be applied to her entire life.
As a lawyer, she helped to win a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel, and her representation of poor black defendants — including her successful defence of a man accused of the notorious murder of a Georgetown socialite in 1964 — blazed new trails for black lawyers.
As an original member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, she was among the first women to be commissioned as army officers and helped to recruit black women for service in the Second World War. As a cleric, she was one of the first female ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Etched into Roundtree’s biography are America’s cruelties towards African-Americans. Helping to raise her was a grandmother whose feet had been crippled by a white man, who, enraged that she ran away when he tried to rape her, wanted to make sure she would never run again.
Roundtree hid from the Ku Klux Klan under her grandmother’s kitchen table, was kicked off a bus in the South in 1942 to make way for a white Marine, and practised law at a time when black lawyers had to leave the courthouse to find a bathroom.
That she nonetheless succeeded — and so ably — tells the often overlooked story of African-American perseverance and progress. Yet it is impossible to read about her life without thinking she might have achieved even more with fewer obstacles in her path — and that the country has lost so much by suppressing the talents of women such as her.
In death, her accomplishments received a bit of the recognition she was denied when she was alive.
She might have liked that, not because she cared much about renown, but rather because her amazing life may inspire others to righteous purpose.