Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster
“after reading her story, you might want to remove the modifiers: Eunice was not just a brilliant African American woman lawyer; she was a brilliant lawyer.”
At a time in American history when lawyers were not as plentiful as today, women lawyers were rare, African American lawyers rarer still, and African American women lawyers rarest of all, Eunice Hunton Carter hit the trifecta: an African American woman lawyer. In Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, author Stephen L. Carter tells, with pride, the story of his grandmother who not only masterminded the case that toppled New York mobster Salvatore “Charley Lucky” Luciano but also fought against social injustice on behalf of both her race and her gender.
From a very young age, Eunice aspired to be a lawyer, once telling a young playmate that she “wanted to make sure the bad people went to jail.” Bad people like Lucky Luciano. And so, borne aloft by ambition, Eunice rose to unprecedented heights in the 1930s and ’40s.
Just as dramatic as Eunice’s rise, however, was the stagnation of her career on the national stage, which she laid at the feet of her brother, Alphaeus, a known communist, whose political ideology tainted her vicariously. Not to be undone, she reinvented herself as an internationalist. As Carter writes, “she was ambitious at a time and in fields where there were few possibilities for a colored woman to shine.”
Mentored by Thomas E. Dewey—he of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline fiasco in the Chicago Daily Tribune following the 1948 presidential election—Eunice aspired to great things: a judgeship or other high state appointment from Governor Dewey, or perhaps some federal presidential appointment should Dewey reach the White House. Sadly, none of those came to pass.
Eunice’s relationship with Dewey began in 1935, when district attorney William Copeland Dodge appointed Dewey as a special prosecutor to investigate “The Mob.” Although Eunice had only received her law degree from Fordham Law School in 1932, and didn’t pass the bar until her second try, in 1933, she had drawn Dewey’s attention by her work in New York’s Women’s Court, which primarily handled prostitution cases, and on Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s “Commission on Conditions in Harlem” following the Harlem riots of 1935.
Dewey named Eunice to his 20-lawyer team, which consisted of 19 white males . . . and one African American woman. She was relegated to a relatively unimportant aspect of the investigation (at least in Dewey’s eyes) relating to prostitution. But, while conventional wisdom held that New York’s brothels operated independently, Eunice detected a pattern that tied prostitution activity together under a single control, and that control was Lucky Luciano. Her groundwork led to a citywide raid of the brothels, then flipping prostitutes against Luciano, which led to his conviction and sentence to 30 to 50 years in prison.
Following that, Eunice’s ascent in political and social circles seemed assured, and she took on other issues in addition to organized crime. Her 1937 speech to the Howard University Alumnae Club presaged today’s “#MeToo” movement as women moved into the workplace: “There are men who exact from women a personal relationship of a rather intimate nature in order that the women may feel secure in their jobs. Boiling in oil is just a little too good for those kind of men.”
But if Eunice thought Dewey’s rise on the political scene would lift her up, as well, she was sadly mistaken. When Dewey left office to run for governor, she felt betrayed by his not naming her as a potential successor. But, as the author writes, she “never blamed Frank Hogan, the new district attorney. She offered a different possibility for her lack of advancement: that even at the apex of her fame, people in positions to advance her career were starting to worry about her brother.” Brother Alpheus, the communist.
While Eunice painfully struggled to reinvent herself, she continually felt weighted down by Alphaeus. When he spent time in prison for contempt of court for refusing to identify other communists, Eunice did not visit him nor did she welcome him home. After that, Carter tells us, “they never spoke again.”
Relying upon historical records as well as family lore, Carter also digs into Eunice’s private life, including her role in Harlem “sassiety” (as he terms it) and her scramble up the “Great Social Pyramid,” which she had to balance against her public persona. Unfortunately, in so doing, she sacrificed personal relationships, including with her son, whom she sent off to live with relatives in Barbados as a boy and then to boarding school when he returned to the United States, and, to some extent, with her womanizing husband.
Although Invisible might be seen as a cautionary tale against unbridled ambition, the author notes that, unless we can say with assurance that Eunice would not have gone further in her career had she been a white male with the same resume, “then, to criticize her for ambition amounts to little more than demanding that she stay in her place.”
Invisible is the inspirational story of Eunice Hunton Carter, lovingly presented by her grandson, and after reading her story, you might want to remove the modifiers: Eunice was not just a brilliant African American woman lawyer; she was a brilliant lawyer.