D.C. Icon Dovey Roundtree Tells her Story

James Wright | 3/24/2010, 9:52 a.m.

Justice Older Than the Law Courtesy Photo
Justice Older Than the Law Courtesy Photo
One of the District€s most successful, yet unheralded attorneys has co-written a book with a leading author that has garnered praise for its ability to convey to readers the character and integrity required of a pioneer during the civil rights era.

Dovey Roundtree, who practiced law in Washington for decades and also served as a minister, recounts her extraordinary life€s experiences in a memoir, "Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree", co-written by Katie McCabe and published by
University Press of Mississippi.

"I like to write stories about unsung heroes who leave huge footprints," said McCabe, 59.

"Dovey is an unsung hero. I wrote about her because I was enchanted by her voice, her inner voice."

Roundtree, 96, has since returned to her native Charlotte, N.C., and currently lives in a nursing home. She is blind due to her long battle with diabetes and has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

In the book, which won the 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, McCabe guides the reader through the many unprovoked battles, which made Roundtree a woman of excellence and spirit recognized throughout legal circles in the District and in the Anacostia community in Southeast.

"Dovey has lived three lives," the Bethesda, Md., author said.

"She has been a soldier in the U.S. Army, a lawyer and a minister. Dovey volunteered for a lot of pain."

Roundtree begins with her early years in segregated Charlotte. She lived with her grandmother, known as Grandma Rachel, and credits her as having a lasting influence in her life. Roundtree enrolls in Atlanta€s prestigious Spelman College in 1934, where she is educated and mentored by a White professor of English literature, Mary Mae Neptune.

Roundtree almost dropped out of Spelman because of a lack of money. However, Neptune stepped in and made financial arrangements that allowed her to complete her education at the all girls€ school. After Spelman, Roundtree heads to Washington, a city that she would live for more than five decades and goes to work for presidential advisor Mary McLeod Bethune.

McCabe said that Roundtree spoke with reverence regarding Bethune.

€Dovey thought that Bethune was the greatest Black woman who ever lived,€ McCabe said.

It was Bethune who persuaded Roundtree to join the first class of the Women Army Auxiliary Corps, where she was one of several Blacks to participate. As expected, in the early 1940s, hostility existed. White racism and sexism on the part of Army officials compelled Roundtree to work to change the racial face of that military branch.

Roundtree also recalls her early years as a law student and a lawyer. She studied and observed attorneys who included Thurgood Marshall and James Nabrit, one of her professors at Howard Law School.

As an attorney, Roundtree made her own legal history with the Sarah Louise Keys case in which the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in 1955 that bus travel between states be desegregated. She made headlines when she successfully defended Raymond Crump in the famous Mary Meyer murder case in 1965, a case that remains to this day unresolved regarding various aspects of the case.

Roundtree talks about her decision to become a minister which was not a result of a profound experience or call from God but a methodical manner in which she reasoned that the ministry was the best way to help people.

First Lady Michelle Obama praised Roundtree upon the release of the book in July, 2009, saying that €it is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow.€

McCabe echoes Obama€s assertion about Roundtree.

€With her experiences, she could have gone on to fame and all that comes with that,€ she said.

€However, she chose to be a one woman legal aid society. She chose to represent people who did not matter.€