Just four years after graduating Fordham Law School, Eunice Carter ’32 masterminded the sting operation that resulted in the imprisonment of mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Carter, the first African-American woman to serve as a New York assistant district attorney, was the only woman and person of color on future New York Governor Thomas Dewey’s team that brought down the mob boss.
Carter’s grandson, Yale Law professor and best-selling author Stephen L. Carter, recounts his grandmother’s time at Fordham, her meteoric rise as a prosecutor, and her work on the Luciano case in his new book, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, published by Macmillan.
“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, and without her work the Mafia boss would never have been convicted,” Stephen L. Carter writes about his grandmother in Invisible. “She was an ambitious woman and she had plans. She was just shy of her thirty-seventh birthday, and had come a long way from her segregated Atlanta childhood. Hers was the idea that had put away the country’s biggest gangster.”
Carter spearheaded the investigation that proved the mob ran New York City’s brothels, and helped flip witnesses that specified Luciano’s involvement. The mob kingpin was subsequently sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison in 1936. Carter’s career-defining achievement came at a time when the American Bar Association discriminated against African-American lawyers, and women lawyer’s contributions were rarely recognized. Her grandson’s book notes that while Carter’s triumphs were shadowed by tragedy and prejudice—and her path was often blocked by social and political expectations of her time—she never accepted defeat.
“Skill, talent, and ingenuity prevail in woman-kind as well as man-kind,” Carter declared many years later at the International Council of Women triennial conference in Greece. “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,” she remarked.
Carter enrolled at Fordham Law in 1927 as a full-time evening division student intent on declaring her own freedom from a life as a Harlem “society matron.” The wife of a prominent dentist and mother of a young child, she was eager to escape what she saw as a “prison of domesticity,” her grandson writes. Her plans of graduating in 1930 didn’t go as she envisioned, however. One year into law school, Carter was excused to care for her ill son, Lisle Jr. When she returned to Fordham 18 months later, Carter maintained a solid B average while also working full-time as a supervisor in the Harlem division of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee.
Carter’s time at Fordham marked the realization of a desire to study law that dated back to age 8, her grandson notes. It was then she told a young boy on the beach she wanted to be a lawyer so she could put bad people in jail. Three decades later, she put America’s most powerful mobster behind bars.
Publisher’s Weekly bestowed upon Stephen L. Carter’s Invisible a starred review, exclaiming “Carter’s enthusiasm for his grandmother’s incredible fortitude despite numerous setbacks is contagious; Eunice Carter’s story is another hidden gem of African-American history.” Kirkus also celebrated Invisible as “A vivid portrait of a remarkable woman.”