Dovey Roundtree
National Visionary

Born on April 17, 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina

Army veteran, civil rights pioneer, attorney and minister

Dovey Roundtree has for more than 50 years broken barriers for women and African Americans in a segregated America. She made history as one of the first African American members of the Women’s Army Corps before embarking on the legal career nationally acclaimed as a civil rights, criminal, and ecumenical lawyer. In 2000, Dovey Roundtree was one of five attorneys honored by the American Bar Association with its prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.

Roundtree as a baby
Born on April 17, 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina, her father died during the influenza epidemic of 1919. She moved with her mother and three sisters to her grandparents’ house. Her grandmother, Rachel Graham, was a powerful figure in her life, instilling in Roundtree the belief that she was capable of accomplishing anything. Among her grandmother’s personal friends was black educator and activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, whom Roundtree first met when she was in the 7th grade.

After graduating from Spelman College, Roundtree was reunited with Bethune in 1941 in Washington, D.C. At the time, Bethune was helping Eleanor Roosevelt in her work to form the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). With Bethune’s assistance, Roundtree became one of 39 African American women to serve as the first group of WAACs, achieving the rank of Captain. Upon her discharge from the military at the end of World War II, Roundtree was looking for a way to make a difference. At the encouragement of renowned NAACP lawyer James Madison Nabrit, a member of the Howard Law School faculty, Roundtree plunged into the study of law. While there, she researched cases for the legal team headed by Thurgood Marshall for what would become Brown v. Board of Education.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
In the years following her graduation from law school, Roundtree distinguished herself as a compassionate, tenacious attorney and earned her a place in civil rights history. In 1952 she took the case of Sarah Keys, an African American private who was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in North Carolina while traveling home on leave. Roundtree filed suit with the Interstate Commerce Commission, and Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company proved to be a landmark case. Although it took three years to rule, the commission reversed its racist policies regarding interstate bus travel, prompting the New York Post to proclaim the victory as “a symbol of a movement that cannot be held back.” Roundtree earned a solid reputation as an outstanding criminal defense lawyer, served on presidential commissions, and won awards from bar associations and law schools around the country.

She has lost count of how many children who, over the 50 years of her law practice, she has taken in or cared for. She has also counseled many families while serving as a minister at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington, D.C., where she preached from the time of her ordination in 1964 until 1996. Now retired from active legal practice, Dovey Roundtree is writing her autobiography, Healing the Brokenness, with Washington writer Katie McCabe, and at the age of 89, continues to be an impassioned advocate for the welfare of children, speaking to women’s organizations and church groups about family issues and the urgent need for creating a positive and powerful legacy to pass on to the next generation.



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