This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Good – Dovey Johnson Roundtree
I love true crime podcasts. One I heard was on Mary Pinchot Meyer, the lover of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Meyer was murdered on Oct. 12, 1964 in Washington, DC. Police arrested Ray Crump, Jr., an African American man, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, for the murder. No gun was found on Crump. No blood was found on Crump. But maybe pressured to arrest someone quickly for the murder of an upper-class white woman or maybe to cover a conspiracy, (do some digging on the murder, it’s fascinating stuff), Crump was arrested and indicted without a preliminary hearing.
Enter Dovey Johnson Roundtree.
Roundtree was convinced of Crump’s innocence – so convinced her fee for representing him was one dollar. According to Rountree, Crump had limited mental capacity to commit the crime. She took 30 minutes for his defense telling the court that Crump did not fit witness testimony of a taller and heavier African American man. Crump was only five feet three and a half inches and 130 pounds. That was about 50 pounds lighter and at least five inches shorter than witness Air Force Lieutenant William Mitchell, (who was five foot eight inches), who claimed the suspect was “about my size.” She called three character witnesses and her only exhibit was Crump – showing his small stature. After eleven hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked 8-4. Crump was found not guilty.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree was born Dovey Mae Johnson on April 17, 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina. After the death of her father from influenza during the 1919 epidemic, her family lived with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother was involved in the colored women’s movement. Through this involvement, Roundtree met Mary McLeod Bethune, a leader in the colored women’s movement. Bethune inspired Roundtree to better herself through education and to rise above poverty. Roundtree worked her way through school at Spelman College during the Great Depression, graduating in 1938 and becoming a teacher.
When World War II began, she resigned from her teaching position and looked to Bethune to help her getting work in the defense industry. Roundtree was selected as one of 40 African American women to train as officers for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She challenged discrimination in the Army and was thrown off a bus while in uniform for not giving up her seat to a Marine. Still Roundtree recruited so many African American woman into the corps she laid the groundwork for an interracial Army.
After the war, Roundtree worked with black labor leader a. Philip Randolph and the Fair Employment Practice Committee. It was then she met Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist who preached that law was the greatest instrument for social change. Taking this to heart, Roundtree enrolled at Howard University School of Law.
During her first year of legal practice in 1952, Roundtree and her partner Julius Winfield Robertson argued for desegregation in the case of Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. Keys, like Roundtree, was forced to give up her seat on a bus to a white Marine. Through the interstate Commerce Commission, they succeeded in getting separate but equal banned in interstate bus travel.
Roundtree and Robertson continued working in DC to desegregate courtrooms and winning cases for their black clients. In 1961, Robertson died from a heart attack leaving Roundtree alone to deal with not only the issue of being African American, but also being a woman in the white, male dominated judicial system. But she thrived by building a law practice as a sole practitioner until 1970 when she founded another firm.
In her later years as a lawyer, Roundtree worked in some of the most violent areas of DC in matters of family and church law. She retired in 1996.
Roundtree is 102 and living in North Carolina.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dovey_Johnson_Roundtree
Mary Pinchot Meyer. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pinchot_Meyer
Hayes, Ben. (n.d.). The Death of Mary Pinchot Meyer. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/