By Katie McCabe
In the space of just two winters, the long-abandoned stretch of wooded property across from Allen Chapel AME Church changed its face, and became something beautiful. Against all odds, in the wake of the housing market crash, the stylish, contemporary looking $ 16 million senior living complex known as The Roundtree Residences took shape, rising up to crown Woodland Terrace with its multi-hued brick towers.
The building is a monument to a long line of dreamers. It speaks, first, to the conviction and tenacity of Allen Chapel’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Bell, Sr. Upon his arrival at the church in 2005, he rekindled the congregation’s longtime interest in affordable housing, and shepherded the 91-unit project to completion through a community development organization affiliated with Allen known as “Vision of Victory.” The residential complex is also a testament to Vision of Victory’s impassioned executive director La Ruby May, a young attorney with a gift for raising money in impossible times, and to the project’s public and private partners.
But the larger vision animating The Roundtree Residences reaches back to the 1950’s, when the 98-year-old legal trailblazer for whom the building is named launched her city-wide fight for social justice. From the day Dovey Johnson Roundtree arrived in Washington to attend Howard Law School, she embraced the city east of the Anacostia River as a place of limitless possibility. “My beloved community,” she called the neighborhoods of Southeast, appropriating the phrase the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to describe his dream of universal peace and brotherhood.
For Dovey Roundtree, King’s words captured her dream as well. Even as she earned fame in the courtrooms of Washington, she waged another battle from the pulpit of Allen Chapel and in the streets of Anacostia. There, she ministered to children and families, to the forgotten and the voiceless.
“Dovey Roundtree is the embodiment of faith and love,” says Rev. Bell. “It’s an honor to immortalize her through this building. She spent her life perpetually fighting for justice for the disadvantaged.”
Dovey Johnson Roundtree was herself a child of poverty and deprivation. Born in 1914 in Charlotte, North Carolina, she witnessed Klan violence and knew the daily pain of segregation. She also experienced wrenching loss: when she was five years old, her father died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. But in the midst of this, her maternal grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham, stood as a bastion of strength and hope. In the days following the father’s death, “Grandma Rachel” took Dovey and her mother and three sisters into the parsonage she shared with her husband, the Rev. Clyde Graham, an AME Zion preacher. In that sanctuary she brought order and comfort to their lives, passing on to her granddaughters her unshakeable religious faith and her sense of dignity and self-worth.
She also held up to them a living example of black achievement in the person of the great educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, whom she befriended through the colored women’s club movement. Bethune’s rise from poverty to the status of presidential advisor and college president so inspired Roundtree that she heeded the suggestion of her eighth-grade teacher that she apply to the elite and expensive Spelman College during the Depression. When she graduated from Spelman in 1938, Bethune placed her squarely on the stage of history by tapping her for the first class of black women to train as officers in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps).
In the Jim Crow military, Roundtree’s activism was born. Within days of her arrival at Fort Des Moines for officer training, she challenged the segregated mess halls. Branded “a walking NAACP,” she was assigned to recruiting duty in the Deep South by white superiors who hoped to neutralize her influence. Instead, they unwittingly empowered her. Traveling alone and without Army protection, Roundtree pitched such a compelling vision of “a free tomorrow” that she broke recruiting records for African American women and changed the racial face of the military years before it was desegregated in 1948 by Presidential order.
In 1944, she risked court martial when she publicly took on Fort Des Moines’ commandant regarding his proposal for a segregated platoon. But as a result of Roundtree’s speech about the Four Freedoms and the wrong of segregation, the commandant rescinded the segregation order. In that moment, Roundtree would later say, she discovered the lawyer in herself.
It required only the eloquence of activist and legal academic Pauli Murray, whom she met during a postwar stint with la bor leader A. Philip Randolph, to set her on the path to Howard Law School. When she arrived in Washington in the fall of 1947, Roundtree settled into an apartment on Ainger Place, S.E., and on her first Sunday there, she attended services at Allen Chapel. In the tiny white frame church distinguished from the surrounding houses only by its cupola, Roundtree embarked on the spiritual journey that would culminate in her 1961 ordination to the AME ministry. At the same time, across the Anacostia River, on the campus of Howard University School of Law, she moved toward her destiny as a groundbreaking lawyer.
One of only five women in her law school class, Roundtree immersed herself in the anti-segregation charge and ignored the gender prejudice of her male classmates. Inspired by such mentors as Thurgood Marshall, James Madison Nabrit, Jr., and George E.C. Hayes, she went on to make legal history of her own. In the fall of 1952, during her first year at the bar, she took on a bus desegregation case that would become a watershed moment in the fight for civil rights, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company.
Nothing about the case betokened historical significance when Roundtree and her law partner, the late Julius Winfield Robertson, agreed to represent a 22-year-old Army private named Sarah Louise Keys, who’d been thrown off a bus in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina and forced to yield her seat to a white Marine. In fact, the matter seemed hopeless, given the times, and the disposition of the courts. But Dovey Roundtree pressed forward because she saw in Sarah Keys’ situation a mirror of her own experiences while traveling by bus on Army recruiting duty.
When the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the Keys complaint on jurisdictional grounds, Roundtree and Robertson took the matter before the Interstate Commerce Commission, a body then known as “The Supreme Court of the Confederacy” for its rigid adherence to the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. The Keys complaint challenged, for the first time in the ICC’s history, the right of a private bus company to impose its Jim Crow policies on black bus passengers traveling across state lines. On Roundtree and Robertson’s first pass, the ICC ruled against them. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown, they filed exceptions, and the ICC listened.
On November 7, 1955, just days before Rosa Parks took her historic stand in Montgomery, the ICC banned ‘separate but equal’ in the field of interstate bus travel in the Keys case. In purely legal terms, the ruling was historic – “a symbol of a movement that cannot be held back,” one New York columnist wrote. But for six years, the effect of the ruling was blunted by the pro-segregation ICC Chairman, who saw to it that the decision remained unenforced. At last, in 1961, when the Freedom Riders’ campaign turned worldwide attention to the brutality of Southern racism, the Keys case resurfaced in the hands of then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who quoted it to the ICC in a tough Department of Justice statement. Faced with its own words, the Commission enforced its ruling in Keys, thus permanently ending Jim Crow in interstate travel.
In the six years that separated the Keys decision from the day in 1961 when the ICC finally obeyed its own order, Dovey Roundtree walked a path far removed from the protests in the South and civil rights victories in the courts. She worked down in the trenches, representing people in pain – mothers fighting for their children, fathers fighting for their jobs, teenagers who’d been preyed upon, victims of violent crimes. She began, in this period, to consider pursuing the ministry, which she saw as a tool for addressing the kind of human suffering that lay beyond the reach of the law and the courts. Though the AME Church barred women from full ordination rights, she embarked on ministerial studies at night at Howard University Divinity School, determined that when the AME bishops began ordaining women, she would be ready. In November, 1961, just months after the admission of women clergy in that church, Roundtree was ordained an itinerant deacon, taking the first step toward full the ministerial status she would achieve in 1964, with her ordination as an itinerant elder.
She forged a dual role as a lawyer and a minister, pushing forward after the 1961 death of her partner Julius Robertson to build a reputation as a one-woman legal aid society in a field dominated by men. In 1962, amid a firestorm of protest, she became the first black member of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia. At a time when black lawyers were barred from the courthouse restrooms and cafeterias, Dovey Roundtree represented black clients before white judges and predominantly white juries, and she prevailed. Washington legal lore is filled with stories of her victories in unwinnable cases for clients no one else cared about. The reporters, judges, and law students who packed the US District Court in the summer of 1965 to watch her defend a black laborer accused of the murder of Kennedy mistress and CIA wife Mary Pinchot Meyer remember, still, the way she took on the government in the case of The United States v. Ray Crump. She earned legendary status as the beautiful woman lawyer who tried the most sensational murder case of the decade dressed in a pink-and-white suit, who stood alone against the US Attorney’s office, skewered the state’s eyewitness, made a mockery of the circumstantial case erected against her client, and quoted Shakespeare on the sacredness of a man’s good name. In so doing, she won for herself an honored place among the white majority, simply by outperforming them.
In the wake of her victory in the Crump case, Dovey Roundtree became one of the most sought after criminal defense attorneys in Washington and a mentor to an entire generation of young attorneys of color who walked in her footsteps. Judges began appointing her to some of the city’s toughest murder cases. But always, her heart lay in her ministry, with the people of the Southeast neighborhoods she had claimed as her own when she’d come to Washington. “Rev. Roundtree has the heart of a servant,” says her goddaughter Charlene Pritchett Stevenson, who met Roundtree 20 years ago after services at Allen and became a member of her family, raising her infant son James Andrew in Roundtree’s home. Stevenson came to regard her not only as a mother, and a grandmother to her son, but as a model of righteousness. “Her love for children knew no bounds,” Stevenson says. “She also made a special effort to reach out to the church’s elderly members, making sure they had a sense of peace and comfort.”
Another longtime Allen member, Dr. Shirley Jackson, recalls the decades when Roundtree, much in demand as a speaker, would donate her speaking fees to the empty Allen Chapel coffers. Roundtree, Jackson says, was a true community minister. “She mentored women and children all over Anacostia, big people and little people. And she quietly represented dozens of young folks, keeping them out of jail so that they could go on and do great things with their lives.”
On Sunday, March 10, following the 11:00 AM service at Allen Chapel, Pastor Bell will lead his congregation in a march across Alabama Avenue to the site of The Roundtree Residences to dedicate the building to Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Roundtree, who is prevented by ill health from traveling from her Charlotte, NC home to attend the ceremony, will be personally remembered through the singing of her favorite hymns and in tributes by those who knew her. In this celebration, say people like Shirley Jackson and Charlene Stevenson, the entire community will solidify the legacy of the woman that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor termed “a national treasure” when the two were honored by the American Bar Association in 2000.
“Dovey Roundtree is the perfect person after whom to name this building,” Jackson says, “because of her character, her selflessness, which we hope will be carried on in the minds and hearts of the residents as they learn more about her and live in her spirit.”
Information on Dovey Roundtree’s life and her award winning 2009 autobiography, Justice Older than the Law, by Katie McCabe and Dovey Johnson Roundtree, is available at the book’s web site, www.justiceolderthanthelaw.com.