During the past century two things have remained constant in DC: the city is the seat of the federal government; and someone in Bettye-Makeda Neal’s family has been practicing law.
Neal started practicing human-rights and then corporate law 14 years ago. The attorney, who resides on O Street SE in the Hillcrest/Fort Dupont area, has been following in the footsteps of her family’s elders, beginning with her great grandfather, John Roland McCormack. John Roland graduated from Howard University Law School in 1917.
“My great, great grandfather was one of the emancipated slaves in South Carolina. Although he wasn’t educated himself, he was really focused on education for his family,” said Neal, who is the youngest of her parents’ four children (three biological and one adopted).
Neal graduated from Capital University Law School in her native Columbus, Ohio, in 2004, after attending Florida International University and graduating in 1997. She chose the Lutheran law school partially because of her twin interest in human rights and economic development as well as the fact that Ohio State University, which has the largest enrollment in the state, seemed perhaps too dramatic a move for a very private person.
Being a private person, however, has never kept Neal from accomplishing a lot and accumulating many accolades. As an 18-year-old, she began traveling internationally and was sent to Jamaica for a month on an unofficial rite of passage. For several years thereafter, Neal would return to the Caribbean island-nation every nine months. Before that, in Ohio, she was an assistant to a theater director at the tender age of 13 and managing a restaurant at the age of 16.
“I didn’t go to law school to become a traditional lawyer. My eye was fixed on human rights and development, which eventually lead to my time with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda after graduating. While in law school, I was on the Jessup International Moot Court Team and inducted into the National Order of the Barristers,” said Neal matter-of-factly about the honor. The Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, also known as the Jessup Moot, is the oldest and largest international moot competition in the world, attracting participants from almost 700 law schools in more than 90 countries.
Traveling will always play a large part in her life. If Neal attains her goal, she may visit more than 90 countries around the world. She hopes to say, one day, that she visited every country in the continent of Africa. “I made my first trip to Africa when I was 23. I went to Dakar to mitigate a crisis on behalf of an American organization. While there I was invited to attend the World Women’s Conference in China by government officials who were impressed with our meeting. While in South Africa I met the then First Lady, President Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel. The purpose of the trip was to bring peaceful conflict resolutions to the Hutu and Tutsi women of Burundi. Women can and should lead the road to peace.”
Neal lives alone with Bootsie, her female Maltipoo, a hybrid obtained by breeding a Maltese and a miniature poodle, in a four-unit apartment building she owns and has named The Lorraine, which is her mother’s middle name. She once lived on Capitol Hill with throngs of other lawyers, “but the yards are very small, and parking is a bit of a hassle.”
“I’m from the suburbs of Columbus, and I like O Street SE because it feels like a suburban neighborhood but is five minutes from the Capitol. We actually have lawns to cut and we don’t stress about parking. It’s the best of both worlds, suburb and urban. There is a sense of community that comes from the families that have a long history in Southeast. When I moved here, eight years ago, I was impressed that a Catholic church, a mosque and a Baptist church are all within a four-block radius. I took it as a sign that my new home would be welcoming,” Neal said.
Perhaps because of her “Where I grew up people are more respectful of not littering. There is no rational justification in littering. Recently, I was pumping gas and watched a woman drop her Big Gulp cup out her window, and she was two feet away from the trash can. That devalues the neighborhood and the community.”
As a landlady, Neal has settled into a routine as far as keeping her dwelling in pristine condition. The lawn is well-manicured and cut regularly, which includes making sure that the shrubbery is trimmed and the mulch is changed. Neal starts her day regularly at 5 a.m. and rides her stationary bicycle for five to 10 miles, three times a week. A culinary artist who loves to cook, she also is a strict time manager who often works 10-hour days, primarily on corporate matters and consulting on human rights, real estate and nonprofit as needed.
Thom Hilliard is a friend and neighbor who has known Neal ever since she showed up on O Street. “We work in tandem to try and keep it neat as possible around the back yard and alley. Bettye is inspiring. A lot of neighbors around here are now trying to keep up with her. She is an outstanding neighbor and one of the hardest working women I have ever known,” said Hilliard, who is a retired military veteran and a trial lawyer.
Neal purchased her current home, and became a landlady, after guidance from her father, Horace Columbus Neal, a retired Air Force master sergeant who married Neal’s mom, Bettye Lorraine, when they were both in the Army branch that later became the US Air Force. They lived together in marital bliss for 46 years.
“He was a wise man. In 1999, he advised me to buy a building as soon as I was in the position to do so. He said, ‘Do not trust that Social Security will be available for your generation.’ Ten years later, as I sat with my father, I made my first offer from his deathbed. Given the state of politics, my father was right, and I am in a much better financial position because of his advice.”
In good health, Neal’s mother, known as “Mamma Neal,” lives in Ohio. A native Washingtonian, she attended but did not graduate from Howard University before joining the Women’s Air Force (WAF), meeting and marrying, moving to Anchorage, Alaska, finally settling in the Midwest.
Neal is open to the idea of meeting “Mr. Right” and starting a family. She already has the house, the fence and the dog. In 10 years or so, Neal expects to possibly be living overseas or at least commuting between the United States and another country.
Today, however, she is more than contented to reside here, East of the River. “I love it here. There’s the river, bike trails, places to hike, fields for sports and community farming. It’s 35 minutes from North Beach on the Chesapeake. O Street is perfectly situated between Maryland and Virginia. In less than 15 minutes, I can drive to Target in Forestville, Maryland, or go to the movies in Potomac Yards, Virginia.”