In John Robinson Wilkins and the Resources of the Law, David B. Wilkins explores a piece of his own family history through the life of his uncle, an acclaimed Black lawyer who “pioneered the nascent field of law and development and, along the way, shattered countless assumptions about the limits of race, legal careers, and ultimately the law itself.” Applying aspects of the portraiture methodology, which emphasizes capturing the complexity of life stories, Wilkins guides us through the life and times of his uncle as he forged his path-breaking legal career. (For more on portraiture, see “Portrait of an Artist,” where Wilkins interviews the method’s creator, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.)
In Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School, chronicles the incredible career of his grandmother, Eunice Carter, a Black woman prosecutor in New York City at a time when very few lawyers in the country were either Black or women. Not only that, Eunice was the lawyer at the heart of then-special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey’s famous legal takedown of mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano. With the help of his daughter Leah Carter—a graduate of Yale Law School, like her father, who served as principal researcher for the book—Carter offers a profound portrait of not just the career achievements of Eunice but the motivations and struggles that defined her life and work.
Carter often begins talks about his grandmother by describing her initial steps into a legal profession that was not quite ready for her presence. Eunice graduated from Fordham Law School in 1932 and soon after passed the New York bar. The problem was, he points out, the American Bar Association had a rule against admitting black members—a rule that was not abolished until the 1940s and not effectively abandoned until the 1950s.
Right as Eunice was graduating law school and gaining admission to the bar, the mob was very active in New York City and in Harlem in particular. As Carter describes in Invisible, Black mobs in Harlem were edged out by ethnic white mobs, resulting in substantial gang violence throughout the city. Meanwhile, the city faced rampant corruption in its government, including among the city’s prosecutors charged with prosecuting mob leaders. The problem, Carter recounts, was so serious that in 1935 a grand jury complained in open court that prosecutors were not pursuing obvious leads and even suggested that the district attorney might have been receiving payoffs in the process. After the foreman of that grand jury (now known as the “1935 Runaway Grand Jury”) met with the governor of New York, the governor publicly demanded a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate organized crime and corruption in New York City. That man would be Thomas E. Dewey, who would later go on to become governor of the state himself and eventually run for president of the United States against Harry Truman.
Dewey put together a team of 20 prosecutors to help carry out his investigation—a team that included 19 white men and one Black woman (Eunice). Since hers was the “man bites dog” story, as Carter explains, naturally it was the thread that was picked up by newspapers across the country. The 19 white male lawyers in Dewey’s office were tasked with investigating issues of loan sharking, smuggling, murder, and political corruption—all the front-page, headline material. What about Eunice? She was assigned to work on prostitution. According to Carter, this charge was in line with how women prosecutors were often assigned to so-called women’s courts that handled issues like prostitution and child abandonment. Despite Dewey’s public proclamation that he was not interested in prosecuting organized crime for anything but serious offenses, she took her assignment seriously.
Relying on interviews with numerous women as well as social services records connected to prostitution, Eunice spent months building a case that in New York City, prostitution, far from being the domain of independent brothels, was in fact largely centralized and run by the mob. When none of the other 19 lawyers could come up with a substantial case against Lucky Luciano, the infamous leader of the Five Points Gang, Dewey allowed Eunice to organize a raid of dozens of brothels in the city. On February 1, 1936, more than 100 women were arrested—four of whom would go on to testify in court, leading to Luciano’s conviction and imprisonment. As Carter describes in Invisible, this elevated Eunice’s profile to one of the most famous Black women in the country at that time. Still, he adds, to him, she was just a stern grandmother who demanded he use the proper fork at the dinner table.
In Invisible, Carter, with the help of his lawyer-turned-researcher daughter, Leah Carter, also explores the legacy of Eunice’s grandfather, Stanton Hunton, a thrice-escaped slave who eventually bought his and his brother’s freedom; her father and mother, both activists who worked to empower and support the Black community; and her brother, Alphaeus Hunton, a communist activist imprisoned in the McCarthy era who would go on to permanently leave the United States to join W.E.B. Du Bois working on his Encyclopedia Africana. In the end, the two offer a portrait of a woman who overcame racial and gender bias to forge her dream career as a lawyer—one that defied the norms of the day. Invisible offers a detailed account of the forces and people who shaped the individual who would reach those heights. Through the story of his grandmother, Carter shows how a Black woman lawyer in 1930s New York took down the country’s most powerful mob boss—and set the stage for generations of lawyers to follow.