Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster By Stephen L. Carter Henry Holt and Company, New York, 384 pages, $30
The sage advice of Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, is to “never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” This is a recurring theme throughout Stephen L. Carter’s new biography of his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter, who in the 1930s became the first black female prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and helped prosecute Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the boss of what became the Genovese crime family. It is a compelling book that tells the story of a pioneering woman who has largely been lost to history.
The author is a Yale Law School professor, best-selling novelist, and writer of eight nonfiction books. Utilizing his superb storytelling talent, he brings Eunice to life with his deft use of extensive archival records, press reports, personal interviews, and remembrances.
In addition to telling a worthwhile story, the book constitutes impressive scholarship, with 68 pages of meticulous endnotes supporting the 284-page narrative. Although written for a mass audience, lawyers will find the book informative because it chronicles a time when women struggled to gain a foothold in the legal profession.
Born in 1899 in Atlanta, Eunice was the eldest of the two surviving children of William Alphaeus Hunton, a prominent leader of the YMCA, and Addie Waites Hunton, a writer and activist. Eunice’s brother, William Alphaeus Hunton, Jr., became a college professor and served as an executive director of the Council on African Affairs. As chronicled by the author, all three played prominent roles in the person who Eunice eventually became and, sadly, did not become.
Following the Atlanta riots of 1906, Eunice’s parents feared for their safety and moved the family to Brooklyn. Eunice’s mother was a dynamo, becoming the first black woman to graduate from Spencerian College. In 1907, she was appointed to the YWCA’s national board. In 1918, she traveled to France to work with black troops serving in World War I. Later, she co-published Two Colored Women With the American Expeditionary Force, a significant book that described the indignities suffered by the segregated black troops. In her later years, she became a distinguished advocate for peace, the empowerment of black women, and the Pan-African movement.
In 1921, Eunice graduated with honors from Smith College. After an unhappy year teaching at Southern University, she returned to New York. She began to write, publishing short stories and book reviews. Within two years, she was inducted into the Writers Guild, a “small coterie of intellectuals at the apex of the [Harlem] Renaissance,” including Langston Hughes.
As recounted by the author, in 1923 Eunice was employed as a social worker when she came to the attention of Harry Hopkins, then head of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, who later served as a longtime aide to President Franklin Roosevelt. Hopkins tasked her with establishing Harlem’s first free dental clinic. In the course of those duties, she met Dr. Lisle Carter, a Harlem dentist. The two married in 1924, and settled in Harlem. Their one child, Lisle Jr., was born in 1925.
Over the next 40 years, Eunice became a fixture in Harlem society, which the author entertainingly recreates. Many of the richest narratives in the book describe the world of the “Harlem Czarinas,” memorably dubbed by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as the “queenly” women “who presided over the Harlem upper class.”
In 1927, Eunice enrolled at Fordham Law School, where she earned excellent grades. During law school, she also worked full time as a social worker, raised a young son, and supported GOP candidates for political office. She became the first black woman to earn a law degree at Fordham.
After gaining admission to the bar, Eunice established a law office in Harlem and worked as a volunteer assistant in the New York City Women’s Courts. In 1934, she unsuccessfully ran on the GOP ticket for a State Assembly seat in Harlem, which began to trend Democratic during the Great Depression. In 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her to the Commission on Conditions in Harlem, established in the wake of riots and boycotts.
In 1935, Thomas E. Dewey was appointed Special Prosecutor by Gov. Herbert Lehman to combat organized crime. Although “New York had no statutory provision for an independent prosecutor” and Dewey operated as a part of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, he set up a separate shop in the Woolworth Building, hired his own staff, and was provided a separate budget that he alone controlled. Eunice was hired as one of the 20 assistants, the only woman.
The author describes well the power that mob syndicates wielded in the 1930s. Following the 1931 killing of Salvatore Maranzano, Charles “Lucky” Luciano became the dominant crime boss in New York, controlling lucrative gambling, loansharking, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution rackets.
According to the author, Eunice was put in charge of investigating prostitution. Dewey initially took a dim view of her investigation, because he did not want to be viewed as a moral crusader, he doubted that prostitution was controlled by the mob, and his strong preference was to prosecute top crime bosses for the activities that made them “rich and powerful.”
However, Eunice developed extensive evidence showing that, beginning in 1933, a “central syndicate controlled the business of prostitution.” Her work eventually convinced Dewey who, on February 1, 1936, authorized a massive raid on dozens of brothels, leading to over 100 arrests. Dewey then convinced the courts to levy heavy bail, which few of the arrestees could meet. Thus squeezed, prostitutes, madams, and bookers (pimps) began to turn state’s evidence, disclosing the workings of Luciano’s operation and those close to him. The best part of the book is the author’s description of how Eunice’s shrewd investigative work set the foundation for the entire prosecution.
Luciano’s trial began in May 1936 and ran for five weeks. Dewey served as lead counsel, subjecting Luciano to a withering cross-examination when the mob boss took the stand in his own defense. Luciano was convicted on 62 counts of compulsory prostitution, and was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison.
For Dewey, the Luciano case spring-boarded his celebrated career as the Manhattan District Attorney (1938-1941), New York Governor (1943-1954), GOP presidential nominee (1944 and 1948), and Wall Street lawyer (1955 to 1970). As for Eunice, she remained in the shadows. Dewey did not choose her for the trial team.
In the years that followed, Eunice remained a GOP stalwart, helping Dewey and other candidates to court votes in Harlem. Like her mother, she devoted years of her life to organizations promoting the empowerment of women and international peace. Along the way, she became the confidante of luminaries such as Mary McCloud Bethune, Roy Wilkins, and Walter White.
Eunice’s aspiration was to become a judge. As sensitively recounted by the author, she was frustrated in this quest by two powerful historical forces. First, Harlem became increasingly Democratic starting in the 1930s. Second, Eunice’s brother gained notoriety as a communist. Thus, Eunice became an indirect victim of McCarthyism. To her dying day, Eunice was convinced that she missed out on a judgeship and other prestigious government posts because her brother was a communist.
Jeffrey Winn is a management liability attorney with the Chubb Group, a global insurer, and serves as a member of and the secretary to the executive committee of the New York City Bar Association.