Mabel Watson Raimey

Recently a friend lent me a wonderful book, More than Petticoats: Remarkable Wisconsin Women, by Greta Anderson.* The book biographies a number of notable Wisconsin women, but the biography that stood out the most to me was of Mabel Watson Raimey.

Mabel Watson Raimey was the first African-American woman to attend Marquette University Law School. (117) She worked during the day and went to law school at night. (117) She was the first African American female lawyer in Wisconsin, entering the profession in 1927. (118)

Ms. Raimey went to law school a few years after she was fired from her job teaching elementary school in Milwaukee: she was let go on the third day of school after school officials learned of her race. (114-15) Ms. Raimey had been a distinguished student before entering the teaching profession. (116) She graduated from West Division High School at fourteen and obtained an English degree at the University of Wisconsin. (116-17)

Before entering law school, Ms. Raimey volunteered for the Milwaukee Urban League and ultimately became a member of the board. (117-18) She founded the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Milwaukee, and she helped to start a YWCA branch in Milwaukee for African Americans (now called the Vel Phillips Center). (118)

Ms. Raimey practiced law in Milwaukee. (118) Three African-American lawyers practiced in Milwaukee in the 1930s through the 1940s. (118) Ms. Raimey served both African-American and white clients. (118) She represented individuals “’regardless of their race, color, creed, or economic ability . . . in a fair and just manner.’” (118)

The book recounts that when Ms. Raimey accepted an award later in life, she said

[i]f my acceptance and completion of law school at Marquette University in the 1920s has inspired or encouraged anyone to enter the field of law, I am pleased. If any accomplishment that I may have made has had any influence on any young people, I am pleased more. (121)

Ms. Raimey has been recognized by other Marquette faculty. Professor Phoebe Weaver Williams recounted Ms. Raimey’s life in A Black Woman’s Voice: The Story of Mabel Raimey, “Shero”, 74 Marq. L. Rev. 345 (1991).** A historical marker to Ms. Raimey also stands outside Sensenbrenner Hall on Wisconsin Avenue.

I admire Ms. Raimey for her desire to learn, her ability to push forward in the face of injustice and bigotry, her sense of fairness in representing her clients regardless of race, and her community activism.

Readers: what other Marquette women lawyers have made a difference in the legal profession and the broader community? Whom do you admire?

*Greta Anderson, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Wisconsin Women, 113-21 (2004).

**In her book, Greta Anderson gratefully acknowledged Professor Williams’ assistance in writing the chapter on Ms. Raimey.


This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Gordon Hylton

    Mabel Raimey was a remarkable woman, but her relationship to the Marquette Law School is not always fully understood. She did not, for example, graduate from the law school.

    Mabel Raimey enrolled in the law school’s evening division in 1924, the year that it was eliminated. However, those who were already enrolled when the decision was made in 1924 were permitted to finish the evening course, but no additional students were admitted. She was thus one of the last evening students at Marquette until the evening program was revived in 1997.

    Evening students in her era were not eligible to receive Marquette law degrees, so she was technically not a graduate of the law school. Under Wisconsin bar admission rules of that era, all one had to do to qualify for the bar examination in Wisconsin was to prove that one had studied law for three years, so three years in the MU part-time program met that requirement. Since the diploma privilege was not extended to Marquette until 1934, all Marquette law students, whether they received the degree or not, were required to take the bar examination.

    It is also not clear how many of Mabel Raimey’s Marquette students and faculty knew she was African-American. She was by all accounts very light skinned, and given her past misfortunes that Melissa mentions above, it would hardly have been surprising if she kept her racial identity to herself.

    However, whether or not she was openly African-American was not likely to have affected her ability to enroll at Marquette. The law school had already accepted a small number of African-American male law students and a small number of white female students before 1924. In fact, its predecessors, the Milwaukee Law Class and the Milwaukee Law School had admitted students from both categories.

  2. Gordon Hylton

    Mabel Raimey’s racial identity in the 1920’s is genuinely puzzling. There is no question that Ms. Raimey indentified with African Americans during most of her life. It is also true that her photographs suggest that she had a very light complexion.

    There is no real doubt that the Raimeys were African American. As Prof. Phoebe Williams demonstarted in her 1991 landmark article on Raimey, her mother’s family were the descendants of freed Virginia slaves who moved to Wisconsin in the pre-Civil War era. Although it is likely that one of her ancestors was a white slave-owner, her maternal ancestry was clearly African American.

    Less is known about her father’s racial background, but we do know that Anthony Raimey [Ramey] was a light-skinned African American. He is listed in the 1880 United States Census as a 17-year-old mulatto, living in Tennessee.

    The puzzling part of the story is that the United States Census for 1920 lists all three Raimeys–Mabel, her mother and her father–as “white.” Coming just a year or two after Mabel lost her public school teaching position in Milwaukee when it was discovered that she was African American, it is not surprising that the family might have choosen to pass for white, if it had that option.

    Of course, Mabel Raimey had grown up in Milwaukee and graduated from West Division High School, so it seems unlikely that the family could “fool” the entire community.)

    By 1930, it appears that Anthony Raimey had passed away and in that year’s United States Census, both Mabel and her mother as identified as “black.”

    From a law school perspective, this is interesting primarily because the years that Mabel Raimey–Wisconsin’s first black female attorney–spent at the law school appear to coincide with the years that she may have attempted to conceal her racial identity.

    Marquette records of little help in this regard. To its credit, Marquette in the 1920’s did not identify the subject’s race when it listed the names of enrolled students.

  3. alice bryant

    Mabel Raimey was my mother’s good friend. They went to Baptist church together, and mother and my stepfather drove her. She left many things to my Mom such as pictures and Watson belongings, and mail to my mom, and her first typewriter. She did not drive and had a big heart and took care of many who could not afford her services, but she never turned them away. Mom has passed away and yet we keep the momentos. We grew up in Milwaukee and before that Hurley, WI.

  4. Terri Watson Wright

    I am interested in reviewing any momentos or pictures of the Watson’s if you have those in your possession. Researching family history. Thank you.

  5. christine Reynolds

    Christine Reynolds

    I too was a friend of Mabel Raimey as she was our family lawyer. Also I attended the same Baptist church as did Mabel. Her parents were among the founding members of the church. She was totally commited to her profession and refused to marry. I spoke to her last 2 days before she died.

  6. Nope

    It’s not ” puzzling” she’s the great-granddaughter of Sully Watson an ex slave who bought his freedom. It’s also not ” puzzling” that she chose to pass as white in the 1920s, understandable after being fired from MPS three days due to racism. She herself said they never asked, I never answered. What is going on in some of these comments?

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