Eunice Hunton Carter, right from age eight, had the desire to study law. She once told a young boy on the beach that she wanted to be a lawyer to ensure “the bad people went to jail.” In three decades, Carter would bring down America’s biggest gangster in the 1930s, but not without certain difficulties.
Being an African-American woman living in the first half of the 20th century, Carter experienced racism, from being paid far less than her white male colleagues to being passed over for judicial appointments, The New York Times reported. Carter was at the time the first African-American woman to serve as a New York assistant district attorney. A pioneering prosecutor, she was the only woman and the only person of color on the team led by Thomas E. Dewey that took down the country’s biggest gangster.
Her work as a prosecutor also came at a time when the American Bar Association discriminated against African-American lawyers, and the contributions of women lawyers were relegated to the background. But Carter did not let these racial and gender barriers ruin her career. Thanks to her strategy, Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history, was convicted.
“She was black and a woman and a lawyer, a graduate of Smith and the granddaughter of three slaves and one free woman of color, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s,” Carter’s grandson, Yale Law School professor and best-selling author Stephen L. Carter, writes about his grandmother’s extraordinary life in the book Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster published in 2018. “…without her work the Mafia boss would never have been convicted.”
Historians believe her career rise was inspired by her parents. Carter was born in Atlanta in 1899 to William and Addie Hunton, both college-educated. William was the founder of the black division of the YMCA, which fought for racial equality, and Addie was a social worker. Following the 1906 Atlanta riot, the family moved from Atlanta to Brooklyn, with Addie later becoming active with the NAACP and the YMCA.
Carter graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, receiving a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. She was a social worker for some time before she decided to study law, becoming one of the first Black women to receive a law degree from Fordham University in New York City.
In just four years of graduating from Fordham Law School, 36-year-old Carter came up with the strategy to bring down Luciano while she was assistant prosecutor under Dewey, the future presidential candidate.
Luciano was a bootlegger for the Sicilian Mafia during Prohibition before creating America’s first national organized crime syndicate, the “Commission,” run by five Italian crime families in New York and top Jewish mobsters. In the mid-1930s, Luciano got involved in drugs, illegal liquor, prostitution, among other illegal activities which he either supervised or demanded payments from other operators, according to The Mob Museum.
Dewey, who had begun targeting the mobster, assigned his male prosecutors to investigate the Mafia boss’ connections to crimes drug trafficking, extortion and murder in the 1930s. Carter, the only woman on the team, was assigned to investigate illicit sex work, a report by The Hill said.
“In other words, she was assigned to a backwater, essentially busy work, to keep the public happy,” Carter’s grandson Stephen told The Hill. “But where all the other assistants failed to tie Luciano to any criminal activity, Eunice, to everyone’s surprise, constructed the case that Luciano profited from prostitution in New York City. That was the only charge on which he was ever tried, and he was convicted.”
Indeed, through the crucial evidence Carter presented to New York State special prosecutor Dewey, mob kingpin Luciano was subsequently sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison in 1936. He was paroled in 1946 and deported to Italy.
The wife of a prominent dentist and mother of a young child, Carter’s pioneering work in the midst of racial hatred and intolerance has shaped America over time. Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Mob Museum said that though Carter’s strategy to take down the gangster preceded the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act now used against criminal organizations, the Black woman lawyer did lay out “the eventual strategy prosecutors would use to go after the mob.”
Carter, apart from her remarkable work in the judiciary, played an immense role in the Pan-African Congress and in United Nations improving the status of women in the world.
“Skill, talent, and ingenuity prevail in woman-kind as well as man-kind,” Carter said at the International Council of Women triennial conference in Greece years before her death in 1970. “A country or community which fails to allow its women to choose and develop their individual beings in an atmosphere of freedom thrusts away from itself a large part of the human resources which can give it strength and vitality.”