By Amy Rabideau Silvers
No doubt Mabel Watson Raimey could identify with the Negro College Fund’s famous slogan declaring that “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
The iconic slogan first appeared in 1972. In the early decades of her life, Raimey was repeatedly told that women and Black people could not do the kinds of things she wanted to do. She finally became a lawyer, establishing her own legal practice proudly serving both Black and white clients in probate and business matters.
She grew up in Milwaukee, the daughter of Nellie Cora Watson Raimey and Anthony Van Leer Raimey, with roots to one of the first African American families in the city. Her great-grandparents, Sully and Susanna Watson, freed slaves who fled pre-Civil War Virginia, settled in Milwaukee and bought property by 1851. Mabel was born in 1895 and graduated from West Division High School at age 14.
When she told the family physician that she wanted to be a doctor, that early diploma apparently meant little.
As Raimey later recalled, he told her that “medicine would be too hard” and “women couldn’t handle the studies.”
Young Mabel instead began preparing for the more traditional profession of teacher, first attending the Milwaukee Normal School, a forerunner of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
She graduated in 1918—believed to be the first African American woman to graduate from the university—and soon accepted a teaching position with the Milwaukee schools.
The job lasted three days.
Raimey, who was very light-skinned, was called into the principal’s office and asked if she was a Negro. She was summarily dismissed by an administrator who seemed more amused than apologetic about the hiring “mistake.” If that was not enough of an insult, Raimey heard a secretary giggle and turned to find the principal making a face behind her back, something she would never forget.
She found new employment as a legal secretary for a downtown lawyer. In 1922, Raimey enrolled in night classes at Marquette University Law School, but continued to work her day job. While historians now believe that she was the first Black woman to complete law school in Wisconsin, she later acknowledged keeping her silence on the subject of race.
“Nobody asked me,” she said. “I never told.”
“Thus, we have the potential law student, Mabel Raimey—discouraged from medicine because of sexism—prevented from teaching because of racism,” wrote Phoebe Weaver Williams, Marquette University emerita law professor, in a piece about Raimey. “Upon entering law school, she had already experienced the double jeopardy faced by women of color.”
For Raimey, gender may have proved a more obvious and formidable barrier than race. She continued working as a legal secretary before beginning to practice law in that office. She was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar in 1927 and, over time, developed her own practice. (A quick historical note: It would be decades before the second black woman was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar. That was Vel Phillips, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951.)
Nothing about that career path was easy to navigate in Raimey’s time.
“When she entered law school, there were few white women practicing law in the state,” according to a State Bar of Wisconsin legal history, “Pioneers in the Law: The First 150 Women.”
“There were fewer, if any, African American male lawyers, and there were no African American female lawyers,” it continued. “In 1911 the American Bar Association had barred Blacks from membership, a barrier it would not remove until 1943.”
Wrote Williams: “During interviews and speeches she repeatedly admonished younger women to set high goals, and ‘never [use] sex or race as an excuse not to attain these goals.’”
Raimey also served as a leader in the community, including as a founding member and longtime board member of the Milwaukee Urban League. She served on the YWCA board and was a founder of the Milwaukee Northside YWCA. She became a charter member of the Epsilon Kappa Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
In more recent decades, Raimey’s role in Wisconsin legal history has been recognized in public and permanent ways. A historic marker stands on the Marquette University campus.
“Professionally, it was always my intention to serve all people, regardless of race, color, creed, or economic ability, in a fair and just manner,” Raimey said, as she accepted an award from the Black Law Students Association at Marquette.
“If 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.”
She continued working until suffering a stroke in 1972. It happened while she was bathing, alone in her apartment. Friends found her after five long days that she survived by drinking water from the tub. She died in 1986.
In September 2022, members of the sorority chapter gathered for a special ceremony at Raimey’s grave at Forest Home Cemetery. She was the last surviving member of her family, and the burial site had never been graced with a headstone. Her sorority sisters, dressed in white, dedicated a two-sided monument complete with her portrait and accomplishments.
“As Alpha Kappa Alpha women, our chapter considers today a true honor to pause and place an exclamation point on Raimey’s service, community impact, and trailblazing legacy,” declared Debra Brown-Wallace, chapter president. “Now with a proper headstone, Raimey can be an inspiration of future generations to come.”
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