Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, a book about the life of alumna Eunice Carter ’32, was featured in the New York Times. Carter’s prosecutorial work inspired a character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
“It is the curse of historians … to judge the past by the norms of the present.” Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor and the author of, among many other works, the novels “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “New England White,” has good reason to make this blunt judgment early in his latest book, which is devoted to his grandmother Eunice Hunton Carter. Her privileged life and her career as a prosecutor constitute a more complicated narrative than the one contemporary readers may expect of an African-American woman who lived during the first half of the 20th century.
Eunice Carter died in 1970, when Stephen was in high school; he remembers her as “a stern and intimidating woman of advanced years.” But in “Invisible,” which is as much a biography as a reconstruction, Carter has a more urgent mission than retrieving fond family memories: He is explaining, with success and with the clarity of distance, why Eunice was such an extraordinary figure. Her existence so defies retrospective wisdom that when a heavily fictionalized version appeared briefly on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” it prompted incredulous, mocking comments charging that the character — a black woman prosecutor, in large part responsible for the arrest and conviction of a Lucky Luciano-like mobster — was pure anachronistic fantasy.
But she wasn’t. Eunice Carter did spearhead the strategy that brought down Luciano in 1936, reasoning correctly that prostitution rackets in Harlem, and how they were organized, might be the means of achieving his downfall. Carter was only the second woman in the history of Smith College to receive a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in four years; she graduated from Fordham Law School, started her own practice and joined the New York City special prosecutor’s office run by Thomas E. Dewey.