Barbara Ann Rowan, a transplanted New Yorker practicing law in Virginia, was attending an Alexandria Bar Association event in 1982 when a prominent defense lawyer used a racial slur in delivering an after-dinner speech to more than 100 people.
The lawyer drew a standing ovation when the speech ended, but Rowan, the only Black attorney present, remained seated, The Washington Post reported.
“It was not a pleasant welcome to the Alexandria Bar,” she told The Post. “My goodness, I thought I’d stepped into the last century.”
After Rowan described the incident to Gerald Bruce Lee, a Black lawyer who had encouraged her to attend the event, he said he organized a group of Black attorneys to send a protest letter to the bar. The bar expressed “deep sorrow” over what it called “a mistake by an old man,” The Post said. The offending lawyer said he would apologize.
The incident helped spur the formation of a new bar group, the Northern Virginia Black Attorneys Association, said Lee, who went on to hold state and federal judgeships: “We realized we needed to unite and to support each other and to be our own voice.”
Rowan died at 82 on Oct. 31 at a hospital in Arlington, Virginia. Her husband, Harold W. Gossett II, a retired FBI agent and her only survivor, said the cause was COVID-19.
Her death was not initially announced because she had not wanted a funeral, said Gossett, who had also contracted the coronavirus and was hospitalized with his wife. After he recovered, he said, he concluded that she would not have objected to his discussing her life — and her record as a trail blazer.
In 1971, Rowan, then 32, joined the prestigious U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, making her the first Black female prosecutor there, according to a front-page article heralding her appointment in The New York Amsterdam News, one of the oldest Black-owned newspapers in the country. The article said she would be one of two women serving in the office’s criminal division.
Decades before, Rowan was an early Black student at the elite Dalton School in Manhattan after it began integrating racially in the 1940s, the school said.
Rowan was born on Sept. 6, 1938, in Upper Manhattan, the only child of Norman Rowan and Clara (Obey) Rowan. Her father, a naturalized citizen from Jamaica, was an accountant; her mother, from Philadelphia, assisted him in his work, Rowan wrote in a brief personal history. She was raised in Harlem, and said she grew up “nurtured and surrounded” by a West Indian community of friends and family and other relatives.
She graduated from Dalton in 1956 and from Barnard College in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. Also fluent in Italian, she worked as an interpreter in the city’s family courts while attending New York University’s evening law school program, receiving her law degree in 1968.
Rowan did stints with South Bronx Legal Services and in private practice, but she soured on criminal defense work partly because she tended to sympathize with her clients’ victims, said Geraldine Salvani, a lawyer and friend.
Her hiring by the U.S. attorney’s office, then led by Whitney North Seymour Jr., was serendipitous. As she recalled in an interview last summer with Lisa Zornberg — a former criminal division chief who is writing a book on women who served in the office — a judge, after ruling in Rowan’s favor, asked whether she might want to join the prosecutor’s office. She said yes, and received a call from Seymour’s No 2.
“We’re all guys here and we swear a lot,” he told her.
While records are incomplete, Zornberg said her research supported Rowan’s distinction as the first Black woman to be appointed prosecutor in the Southern District. Salvani said, “She was so proud when she got the job.”
Rowan’s hiring helped break ground for women generally in the Southern District, especially in its criminal division, where only two or three women had preceded her, said Zornberg, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton.
Rowan spent three years prosecuting drug and fraud cases. In courtrooms, she engaged jurors with humor and charm, former colleagues recalled. “She had real jury appeal,” said Gary Naftalis, a former supervisor.
Rowan told Zornberg, “The experience taught me about myself.”
It was during that period that she met Gossett, who was investigating cases with the office. They married in 1972.
A few years after Rowan left the Southern District in 1974, she and Gossett were invited by a former office colleague, John W. Nields Jr., to join the staff of the House ethics committee’s “Koreagate” investigation looking into Korean influence-peddling in Congress.
Rowan subsequently served as an assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission. In 1980, she founded an investigative consulting firm, Rowan Associates, which Gossett joined after leaving the FBI in 1983.
They worked together for 35 years, retained by law firms, corporations and state and federal agencies, Gossett said.
Jim Mintz, founder of his own investigative firm and a friend of the couple’s, said Rowan had stood out as someone with enormous integrity in a field where investigators sometimes used ethically challenged methods to gather information.
“She demanded information that she could use in court, and she didn’t want to have to be shy about how she got it,” Mintz said.