In the summer of 1924, Ruth Whitehead Whaley, the first black woman to enroll at and graduate from Fordham Law, deserved to be joyful as she was finishing her final year at the Law School with her classmates. Instead she was upset—and justifiably so. In a letter dated June 7, 1924, Whitehead Whaley wrote to famed civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois regarding the source of her displeasure:
These years have been for the most part pleasantly and profitably spent. However there is one incident which has marred for me the beautiful memory I had expected to carry away of Fordham Law School, its magnanimous spirit and lack of caste and discrimination.
The incident involved a set of law books that Whitehead Whaley should have been awarded due to her exemplary scholastic achievement. She never received the books. Thanks in part to Du Bois, her story was made public in the NAACP’s publication The Crisis.
On Tuesday, Whitehead Whaley’s story was told again, at a Black History Month celebration event that saw Whitehead Whaley and fellow alumna Eunice Carter ’32 inducted into the School’s Alumni of Distinction display.
After Todd Melnick, director of the Maloney Library, related Whitehead Whaley’s story to a standing-room-only crowd in the School’s Bateman Room, Leah Carter, great-granddaughter of Eunice Carter, spoke of her formidable great-grandmother whose work as a state prosecutor helped bring down one of the mob’s most notorious gangsters, Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
“Without Eunice, [Luciano] may never have been convicted of any crime whatsoever,” said Leah Carter, a Yale Law graduate, who helped her father, Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter, conduct research for the book Invisible that he wrote about Eunice.
Eunice Carter became one of special prosecutor Thomas Dewey’s famed “Twenty Against the Underworld”—a team of twenty lawyers Dewey selected to help him fight organized crime in New York City. Carter was the only member of the team who was not a white male. It was Carter who first observed that organized crime was likely involved in running major prostitution rings in New York City, and it was this revelation that was the first domino to fall on the way to Luciano’s ultimate conviction.
The Alumni of Distinction event, part of the School’s 100 Years of Women celebration, was organized by the Maloney Library and the Center on Race, Law and Justice. The center’s faculty director, Professor Robin Lenhardt, urged the audience to consider the kinds of lessons a 21st-century audience can learn from past narratives involving race and gender.
“The stories of our honorees remind us that those of us who are part of the Fordham community have an obligation—an obligation to begin to provide answers to the questions about race and gender, about barriers that affect our community still,” Lenhardt said.
The Alumni of Distinction unveiling coincided with a walk-through visual display, “Lawyering Beyond the Shadows,” created by the Black Law Students Association. Guests were ushered through to the Costantino Room, where individual posters were lined up displaying accolades of and quotes from African-American woman graduates and students of Fordham Law School—20 in total. The exhibit also included a timeline of important dates in Black history in the United States as well as at Fordham Law.
3L Tanyell Cooke, the first Black woman to be elected Student Bar Association president at Fordham Law, was among those featured in the exhibit. She and classmate Melissa Romain, BLSA president, issued closing remarks at the Alumni of Distinction event. Romain spoke about the importance of contextualizing the accomplishments of legendary alumnae of color within a larger historical frame of struggle and triumph.
“The timeline puts into perspective the gravity of Whaley’s and Carter’s achievements,” Romain said. “This does not only speak to their character or drive and determination to success but also as an inspirational message to Black students and alumni of Fordham Law.”