48: Dovey Johnson Roundtree

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings.

It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week for fifty weeks. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude.

#48: Dovey Johnson Roundtree

In 1965, a poor Black man was charged with the murder of a glamorous white socialite. His only defense? A Black, female lawyer who offered only one exhibit, three witnesses, and a brief closing argument. The man was acquitted. The woman was Dovey Johnson Roundtree. She was born in North Carolina in the Jim Crow South and was fortunate to be encouraged to pursue her education by her grandmother’s friend, Dr. Mary Beth McLeod. Dovey worked her way through school and graduated in 1938 with a double major in English and biology. She joined then joined the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (created by Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Bethune), the first cohort of women for training as Army officers. (Dr. Bethune ensured that 40 of the 440 women in the cohort would be Black.) The Army unit was segregated, but Dovey successfully petitioned white officers to take down the “colored only” signs in the mess hall. In 1942, she became one of the first women (of any race) to be commissioned as an Army officer, attaining the rank of captain. She continued with her education graduating from law school in 1950, one of only five women in her class. She went to Washington DC to practice law. Before Rosa Parks took her famous seat, Dovey helped secure a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel. 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. But she wasn’t done with her education, entering the seminary in 1960. She was one of the first women to be ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. After ordination, she served at a predominantly Black, low-income church in DC. She continued to practice law into her 80s. She died in 2018 at the age of 104.