Ruth Harvey Charity

Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity (1924–1996)

Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity was a civil rights activist and defense attorney in Danville. Nonviolent demonstrations emerging from the Danville Movement in June 1963 resulted in a violent response from authorities and hundreds of arrests. Charity and a few local attorneys defended protesters through complicated state and federal appeals from 1964 until 1973. Danville's voters elected her to the city council in 1970, becoming the first African American woman to sit on the body. From 1972 to 1980, she was one of four Virginia members of the Democratic National Committee. Charity lost her law license in 1984 when she was convicted of embezzling from two clients' estates. In 1985 she moved to Alexandria and worked for the Fairfax Human Rights Commission. Charity died in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1996. MORE...

 

Charity was born in Danville and was the daughter of Charles Clifton Harvey, a Baptist minister, and Annie Elizabeth Lovelace Harvey, a teacher. She was educated in the racially segregated Danville public schools and finished high school at the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, Guilford County, North Carolina, known for its leadership training for African American women. She received an A.B. from Howard University and in June 1949 graduated from its law school. After working for the federal government for about a year, she was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1951 and on June 30 of that year married the Danville attorney Harry Inman Wood. They opened a joint practice in Danville, and she retained her maiden name professionally. They had no children and divorced on November 4, 1964. On February 24, 1968, she married Ronald Karl Charity, formerly of Richmond, an accomplished tennis player and coach who had helped train Arthur Ashe. He had one son whom the Charitys raised in their Danville home. After her second marriage, she was known as Ruth Harvey Charity.

As president of the Howard University chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1944, Ruth Harvey led a sit-in at a segregated restaurant in Washington, D.C. Civil rights advocacy was a constant theme of her professional career. In 1960, as sit-ins in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, drew national attention and galvanized the direct-action phase of the civil rights movement, she protested segregation in Danville's public library and parks. In the spring of 1963 local black ministers affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Danville Movement to combat segregation and discrimination in all aspects of the city's public and economic life. When the Danville Movement collided in June of that year with a city government determined to maintain segregation, Harvey became deeply involved in defending civil rights activists.

As one of a small group of attorneys—some local, some from elsewhere in Virginia, and ultimately some nationally known—she defended the members of the movement against intense legal attack. Faced with an increasing number of demonstrations, the Danville judge Archibald Murphey Aiken issued a sweeping injunction banning most forms of public protest. While enforcing Aiken's blanket ban, Danville police officers assaulted a group of nonviolent protestors on June 10, 1963; using nightsticks and fire hoses, they injured forty-eight people. The city council passed ordinances reinforcing Aiken's injunction, and a special grand jury indicted movement leaders under an antebellum state law making it a felony to incite the black population to insurrection against whites. Local protestors, augmented by representatives from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, defied the city's ban on demonstrations, an action that resulted in more than 600 arrests on 1,200 charges. During the complicated appeals in state and federal courts that followed, attorneys from the NAACP and nationally known civil rights lawyers, including Arthur Kinoy and William M. Kunstler, assisted with the initial appeals, but after 1964 the work fell mostly on Harvey and a few African American lawyers in Danville.

The Danville demonstrations briefly gained national news coverage and contributed to the rising sentiment in favor of civil rights legislation, but the costs were high for the demonstrators, in fines and jail time, and for Harvey, in having her legal practice dominated by financially nonlucrative civil rights work. After a break for the first round of appeals, Aiken resumed his heavy-handed trials of the demonstrators in 1966. He issued contempt citations to Harvey and a local white business executive who criticized his courtroom conduct. The trials and appeals lasted until 1973, two years after Aiken's death. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ultimately overturned more than two hundred of the convictions. Through that long legal process Ruth Harvey Charity became Danville's best-known civil rights lawyer and one of the best-known black women in the state. Her skill also attracted clients among low-income whites who began to turn to her as a legal advocate for the poor.

Charity directed her civil rights activism into politics. In 1967 she lost a runoff primary vote for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and mounted an unsuccessful write-in campaign in the November election. The next year she unsuccessfully sought election to the House of Representatives as an independent candidate, and in 1969 state civil rights leaders recommended her for appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. She supported the statewide campaigns of Henry Evans Howell Jr., a maverick Democrat from Norfolk elected lieutenant governor in 1971. Charity won enough support from both black and white voters in 1970 to come in fourth in a field of sixteen candidates in a race for four city council seats, thus becoming the first black woman in Danville's history elected to the city council. She served only one four-year term on that body, but she held other political party offices, including two terms, from 1972 to 1980, as one of four Virginia members of the Democratic National Committee. Her husband managed her campaigns for office and shared her political activism. They also had several business ventures in public relations, including the promotion of a national beauty and scholarship pageant for African American teenage girls. She served on the boards of several educational institutions, including Howard University, and in 1967 was president of the Old Dominion Bar Association.

Personal misconduct brought an unfortunate end to Charity's legal career. In 1984 the Danville commonwealth's attorney prosecuted her for embezzling more than $51,000 from the estates of two of her clients. She was convicted and sentenced to eight years' incarceration. The sentence was suspended on the condition that she serve three years on probation, perform 400 hours of community service, and restore the stolen money. She also lost her license to practice law. In 1985 Charity moved to Alexandria and worked for the Fairfax Human Rights Commission. Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder restored her voting rights in June 1990. On the following April 14 her husband died in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had been residing.

On February 5, 1996, Charity collapsed while waiting for a bus in Washington, D.C., and fell into a coma. Taken to a nursing home in Greenbelt, Maryland, Charity died there on April 26, 1996, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Danville.

Time Line

  • April 18, 1924 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey is born in Danville. She is the daughter of Charles Clifton Harvey and Annie Elizabeth Lovelace Harvey.
  • 1944 - As president of the Howard University chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1944, Ruth LaCountess Harvey leads a sit-in at a segregated restaurant in Washington, D.C.
  • June 1949 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey graduates from Howard University's law school.
  • 1951 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey is admitted to the Virginia bar.
  • June 30, 1951 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey marries Danville attorney Harry Inman Wood. They open a joint practice in Danville, and she retains her maiden name professionally. They will have no children.
  • 1960 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood protests segregation in Danville's public library and parks.
  • June 1963 - The Danville Movement, organized by black ministers affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, clashes with the city government, which is determined to maintain segregation. Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood becomes deeply involved in defending civil rights activists. Trials and appeals will continue until 1973.
  • June 10, 1963 - A prayer vigil for those arrested earlier in the day for participating in the Danville civil rights demonstrations is met with violence as police and deputized garbage men attack the vigil with clubs and fire hoses, injuring forty-seven.
  • June 17, 1963 - Trials begin for those arrested in the Danville civil rights demonstrations. The U.S. Justice Department issues a brief that strongly criticizes Judge Archibald M. Aiken Jr.'s courtroom procedures.
  • November 4, 1964 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity and her husband Harry Inman Wood divorce.
  • 1967 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood loses a runoff primary vote for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and mounts an unsuccessful write-in campaign in the November election.
  • 1968 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity unsuccessfully seeks election to the House of Representatives as an independent candidate.
  • February 28, 1968 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood marries Ronald Karl Charity.
  • 1970 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity becomes the first black woman in Danville's history elected to the city council.
  • 1972–1980 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity serves two terms as one of four Virginia members of the Democratic National Committee.
  • 1984 - The Danville commonwealth's attorney prosecutes Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity for embezzling more than $51,000 from the estates of two of her clients. She is convicted and sentenced to eight years' incarceration. The sentence is suspended in favor of three years on probation, community service, and restitution of the stolen money.
  • 1985 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity moves to Alexandria and works for the Fairfax Human Rights Commission.
  • June 1990 - Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder restores Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity's voting rights.
  • April 14, 1991 - Ronald Karl Charity, husband of Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity and onetime tennis coach to Arthur Ashe, dies in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • February 5, 1996 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity collapses while waiting for a bus in Washington, D.C., and falls into a coma.
  • April 26, 1996 - Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity dies in Greenbelt, Maryland, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Danville.
Further Reading
Barkan, Steven E. "Legal Control of the Southern Civil Rights Movement." American Sociological Review 49 (August 1984): 552–565.
Charity, Ruth Harvey, Christina Davis, and Arthur Kinoy in "Danville Movement: The People's Law Takes Hold," Southern Exposure 10 (July/August 1982): 35–45.
Ely, James W. Jr. "Negro Demonstrations and the Law: Danville as a Test Case." Vanderbilt Law Review 27 (October 1974): 927–968.
Hershman, James H. Jr. "Charity, Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 182–184. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Hershman, J. H., Jr., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity (1924–1996). (2014, August 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Charity_Ruth_LaCountess_Harvey_Wood_1924-1996.

  • MLA Citation:

    Hershman, James H., Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Ruth LaCountess Harvey Wood Charity (1924–1996)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 9, 2013 | Last modified: August 14, 2014


Contributed by James H. Hershman Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James H. Hershman Jr. is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.