She Took Down One of America’s Most Powerful Mobsters
The Little Known Story of Eunice Carter
I’ve read scores of epic books during my lifetime. Among those that have resonated with me the most are biographies of Black women figures like author and filmmaker Zora Hurston, political and business leader Condoleezza Rice, and millionaire businesswoman Mary Ellen Pleasant.
While immersed in these books, I’m often reminded of my late mother, a woman whose strong resolve and set of values and principles heavily influenced the person I am today. In celebrating her enduring life legacy and February’s Black History Month, I completed reading a book entitled “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
In it, Yale University professor and author Stephen L. Carter shares the story of his grandmother Eunice Hutton Carter, the influential Black women lawyer and prosecutor who achieved the unthinkable — spearheading the arrest and conviction of Lucky Luciano, America’s most prolific 20th-century mobster.
I found her life journey utterly fascinating, particularly in light of the enormous gender, racial and political barriers that she would have faced at that time. Riveting and moving, much like a page-turning novel, it unearths the story of Carter’s relentless quest to pursue justice in the world.
The book, though, is much more than simply a biography. Rather it provides a well-crafted historical context of Black life in the 20th century, one that offers some interesting parallels for present times. Eunice Carter died in 1970, while her grandson Stephen the author was in high school. Yet he recalls her as being “a stern and intimidating woman of advanced years.”
Stephen Carter was exquisite in his research for the book, weaving a narrative that offers a deep look at why Eunice was such an extraordinary figure. I was particularly struck by his exegesis on how she brought down Luciano in 1936 amid the backdrop of the Harlem prostitution rackets at the time.
Her evolution into this world was a fascinating one. She has the distinction of being only the second woman in the history of Smith College, a private liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts, to achieve a bachelor’s and master’s in four years.
Later she graduated from Fordham Law School in New York before embarking on her own legal practice. In a few short years, she joined the New York City special prosecutor’s office run by noted political leader Thomas E. Dewey. Not surprisingly, Eunice was the only Black American among Dewey’s hires.
She also became a relentless campaigner for the Republican Party, believing that Democrats fostered racism and hate. As the daughter of William and Addie Hunton, two prominent civil rights advocates, she adroitly navigated her views amid her rising status and the prevailing dictates of the times.
Black newspapers frequently highlighted Eunice’s rise as a prosecutor and public figure, noting her success for Dewey’s team with great pride. The Chicago Defender described her 1924 wedding to Lisle Carter, a New York dentist from Barbados, as “a very impressive ceremony” and “the topic of discussion among societal folks.”
Over time Eunice Carter’s ascension was especially noteworthy given the pernicious impact of overt racism during her life. Despite being a rising star, she was paid far less than her white counterparts on Dewey’s staff. She was even passed over for high-level appointments, in favor of her often less qualified office peers.
Arguably the biggest barrier she faced though was the result of her brother’s fervent belief in Communism. Closely tracked by the FBI, his views eventually landed him in prison. Carter in his book argues that this likely had an indirect, chilling effect on Eunice’s reputation and career.
The book also chronicles divisions in Eunice Carter’s marriage to her husband, along with her deep estrangement with her brother. The latter relationship was never fully repaired and the two eventually died within 10 days of each other.
In the end, Stephen L. Carter has revived his grandmother’s voice offering inspiration to women of today, particularly the growing legion of Black women in the legal profession.
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