Black History: Special Delivery!!
Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914 – ) was a true unsung hero and pioneer. Roundtree’s legal victories paved the way for desegregation of transportation in the U.S. Roundtree is a native of Charlotte, NC and a graduate of Spelman College. Her grandmother was a close friend of Mary Mcleoad Bethune. Bethune recruited Roundtree to assist her in her work with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in forming the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp during World War II. Roundtree recruited black women all over the south to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC).
Though a prominent professional, Roundtree, like other blacks experienced the segregation and discrimination of Jim Crow. Her role as a WAAC recruiter often required the use of public transportation for recruiting trips. Roundtree did not realize it at the time; but the discrimination she was subjected to as a bus passenger would be become a major focus of her legal career. During her time in the army she was active in fighting against racism, segregation, and prejudice in the Army.
After the war, Roundtree enrolled at Howard University’s Law School. She was one of only a few women in her class. One of her law professors was future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. Roundtree graduated in 1951. She and her classmate, Julius Robertson then started their own private firm. At first, the practice struggled to stay open. However, in 1952, the firm was contacted by Sarah Keys to represent her in a lawsuit against a bus company. Keys, a private in the Women’s Army Corp was traveling to New Jersey to North Carolina by bus. She was ordered to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white Marine. Key’s refused to give up her seat and was arrested and jailed. Roundtree had a similar experience nearly a decade earlier in Florida while serving in the army. The Keys vs. Carolina Coach Company, litigated by Roundtree and her partner was the first bus desegration case that was heard before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The case was finally decided 3 years later in 1955. The ruling determined that black passengers must be treated the same as white passengers. The case was a very important victory for Keys, Roundtree and the civil rights movement as a whole but its impact would not be felt until years later. The arrest of Rosa Parks 3 weeks later, and the launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott would overshadow this important legal victory. It was during this time that she also became an ordained minister in the AME Church in 1961.
Roundtree also was the criminal defense attorney for one of the most widely publicized cases in Washington DC that was tried in 1965, United States vs. Ray Crump. Crump, a black laborer was accused of murdering a white Washington DC socialite, Mary Pinchot Meyer with romantic ties to President John F. Kennedy. Roundtree agreed to defend Crump for $1. After speaking with him and conducting her own investigation, she was convinced that he could not have committed the crime. There was no evidence to suggest that had a murder weapon. The “black man” that witnesses said was around the area was much shorter in stature then what the witnesses described. Because of Mary Pinchot Meyer’s alleged connections to President Kennedy, there were extensive efforts to suppress evidence. However, Roundtree prevailed and Crump was acquitted. Following the sudden death of her first law firm partner, Julius Robertson in 1961, Roundtree spent several years in a private solo practice. She then joined with several other attorneys to launch a group practice, Roundtree, Knox, Hunter, and Parker in 1970. Roundtree also worked as a special consultant for legal affairs to the AME Church, and general counsel to the National Council of Negro Women.
Roundtree practiced law for more than 50 years; retiring from active legal practice in 1996. In 2009, Roundtree published her autobigraphy, “Justice Older Than The Law” Roundtree also inspired the television series, “Sweet Justice” in which Cicely Tyson depicted a female civil rights attorney. She has been the recipient of numerous awards. A scholarship fund has been set up in her name at Spelman in 2011. She also received the 2011 Torchbearer Award from the Women’s Bar Association of Washington DC; which she integrated in 1962. In 2013, a senior living facility where she had previously ministered was named after her. Roundtree is turned 101 years old in April 2015. Check out the video below where Roundtree shares what it was like to work in a segregated judicial system: