Fordham Law

Remembering Eunice Hunton Carter '32

February 23, 2012

Trailblazing Fordham Law alumna Eunice Hunton Carter '32 was profiled in the February 23, 2012 edition of the Chicago Tribune. Read the full article below or on the Tribune website.

How Eunice Hunton Carter battled Lucky Luciano, and won

by John Kass 

Around the holidays, Eunice Hunton Carter's home smelled of Christmas ham.

She was one of those kind yet stern grandmothers who insisted on proper table manners.

"What I remember best is the smell of the ham," her grandson, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, told us the other day.

He said he remembers her as "Nana in New York." Growing up, he didn't know of her accomplishments, her legal victories. He didn't know of her courage in challenging one of the most dangerous and ruthless crime bosses in America.

Even though this is Black History Month, much of America still doesn't know about Eunice Carter and her battle against New York's boss of bosses, Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

"She had shelves and shelves of books," her grandson recalled. "… And she had a twinkling smile."

But she was no pushover.

"She was the sort of grandmother who would correct our table manners and things like that," he said. And he remembers that, as a child, "I actually liked it. I wanted to learn the right way. "

Eunice Carter wasn't much of a celebrity. She wasn't an entertainer or a politician. She wasn't about flash and slang and swag. Instead, she loved learning and language.

And because she wasn't a showbiz or political celebrity, Hollywood and the music industry haven't yet figured out a way to make a profit on remembering her for Black History Month.

So she's one of the forgotten.

"She was fascinating," said her grandson. "She really was."

Yes, she really was.

She was a lawyer, the first black female prosecutor in the New York district attorney's office. And she took on Lucky Luciano.

That's right, a young black lawyer from Harlem, no doubt patronized and tolerated and likely subjected to slurs and worse, took down Luciano.

And through it all, she insisted on proper table manners and that delicious cooked ham for Christmas.

Carter was born in Atlanta on July 16, 1899. She graduated cum laude with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Smith College in 1921 and later received her law degree from Fordham Law School.

As one of the few black female lawyers in New York, she was a prosecutor in what was then called "Women's Court." And she developed a novel theory about prostitution.

A special prosecutor, Republican Thomas E. Dewey, was going after the mafia. And he was smart enough to listen to her.

Up until then, law enforcement raids on the mob involved publicity pictures — sizzle but not much steak. You may have seen cases of whiskey smashed for the newsreel cameras, and hoodlums paraded in lineups, but except for the federal tax work against Al Capone in Chicago, most of the prosecutions were flashy but not far-reaching.

Then Eunice Carter began working for Thomas Dewey. She didn't play to the cameras or match wits with wise-cracking crime reporters.

Instead, Carter was busy being meticulous. And so she noticed something remarkable about New York's prostitutes.

Upon arrest, all had the same bail-bondsmen, the same lawyers, the same alibis.

Prostitution was an organized racket, and she figured out that organized crime was offering legal and governmental services in exchange for a percentage of the take.

It was a business worth millions of dollars. Dewey began raiding the brothels, and Carter kept asking questions.

She learned that Lucky Luciano didn't run the prostitution. But he had given his nod of approval to the arrangement of legal services for the prostitution racket.

In effect, Eunice Carter, the young lawyer who was all but sentenced to Women's Court while the other investigators played high-profile roles, did something amazing.

She'd helped prove, legally and inexorably, that Luciano was a crime boss, the head of a vast criminal enterprise.

These days, prosecutors have federal racketeering statutes to tie the bosses and politicians to criminal enterprises. But in those days, the all-encompassing federal racketeering laws hadn't been developed.

Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison, though other interests in the federal government secured him a parole and he was deported to Italy.

"It's one of the really great stories of public service in New York," Peter Kougasian, an assistant Manhattan district attorney, told us Wednesday.

Each day on the way to work, he passes by a plaque on the wall near the elevators. The plaque is dedicated to Carter.

"It's a real inspiration," Kougasian said. "She helped shape the face of modern prosecution."

Dewey's team attacked Lucky Luciano in his own backyard, and "a lot of this was thanks to Eunice Carter."

Just imagine what she went through. Likely patronizing commentary about female lawyers and wisecracks about the streetwalkers, and of course, the racism.

But Stephen Carter didn't know about his grandmother's earlier life when he was young. She was just Nana. She made ham. And she had shelves full of books.

He has one particularly incredible memento from her: a baseball signed by the entire 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers team, including Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier.

She was of a generation that understood the importance of passing the right things down to the young, from table manners to love of learning. And maybe she saved that ball thinking one day she'd give it to her grandson.

"I have no idea where she got that, but it is a remarkable thing," he said.

And she seemed pretty remarkable too.