Eunice Carter: Trailblazing Lawyer

The streets were red with blood. The night sky was red with the flames of burning businesses and homes. The air was filled with smoke and screams. Horror and death had descended on Atlanta’s usually peaceful and prosperous Fourth Ward, the neighborhood where the city’s African American middle class resided and had their businesses.

Over two days in September 1906, white mobs of thugs armed with guns and clubs, perhaps 15,000 in all, were determined to obliterate this community. The organized invasion was most immediately sparked by false press reports of two white women being assaulted by black men. It also resulted from mounting resentment of black economic success in Atlanta and politicians and newspapers exploiting hate and fear.1

The rampaging racists flooded into the ward killing anyone who stood in their path. Black passengers were dragged from streetcars to be bludgeoned to death, victims were hanged from lampposts and thrown from upstairs windows, homes invaded and burned, and businessmen and professionals were riddled with bullets while trying to defend their small shops and offices. Law enforcement was not to be found.2

William and Addie Hunton huddled and prayed with their two young children, including seven-year-old Eunice, in their house at 418 Houston Street as the sound of mayhem and murder drew ever closer and closer. A white friend had earlier burst in and offered to hide the family, but they stayed to guard their home. That appeared to be a fatal mistake when they heard the house next-door being overwhelmed.3

Then, suddenly, at 2 a.m., with an earth-shaking clap of thunder, the heavens opened and a mighty downpour began, dispersing the roving crowds soaked with rain and blood. The “Atlanta Race Riot of 1906” was over. At least a hundred were dead and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were burned. The police finally ventured into the ghastly scene and proceeded to arrest black men with firearms who were only trying to protect their families. The next day the state militia entered the streets. That was enough for the Huntons. They packed up and moved to Brooklyn.4

A French newspaper’s account of the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.

Education, Literature,
Law and Politics

William was a devout Christian and International Secretary of the YMCA, regularly traveling the globe. Addie was a college professor, writer and lecturer on women’s and race topics. Accordingly, the Huntons were welcomed into the black intellectual community of New York.5 They naturally saw to it that their children received a good education, including schooling in Germany.6 The serious, no nonsense Eunice Hunton, born on July 16, 1899, in Atlanta, would go on to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., to major in government.7

Eunice Hunton Carter (1899-1970)

It was at Northampton that a professor presented Eunice to Governor Calvin Coolidge, who lived in the town in which he had practiced law. The quiet, kind Coolidge became, in Eunice’s words, her “friend and advisor.”8 Frequenting Calvin and Grace Coolidge’s joyful household on Massasoit Street, which included the Coolidge’s two boys and countless pets, she often used the governor’s large library heaving with history and law books, having access even when he was away.9

More importantly to Eunice, the upright Coolidge was a role model personifying the old New England virtues of humility, charity, frugality and civic obligation, attributes she so venerated. And, he introduced her to “the majesty of the law.”10

Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)

In 1921, Coolidge became vice president (in 1923, president), and in 1921 Eunice graduated with honors with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, achieved after only four years of study.11 As her mother and brother moved to the political left in the 1920s (her brother, Alphaeus, would become a Communist Party leader and imprisoned),12 and as most black Americans became Democrats in the 1930s, Eunice would never countenance leaving the GOP, the party of Lincoln and her revered Calvin Coolidge. Besides, she was a committed small-government, fiscal conservative in her own right.13

After a sad semester teaching at Southern University in Baton Rouge, summoning unhappy memories of her childhood in the South, Eunice returned to New York City to be a social worker and substitute teacher. She simultaneously penned critically acclaimed novels and short stories, becoming “a leading light” of the Harlem Renaissance. She also led campaigns to pressure Harlem department stores to hire black employees and to found Harlem’s first free dental clinic, and in doing so met and married dentist Lisle Carter in 1924.14

Eunice Carter, nonetheless, felt unfulfilled. She admitted her “hidden desire” had always been to be a member of the bar. At the age of eight, not long after the Atlanta riot, she had announced that she wanted to be a lawyer and put bad people in jail. So, she enrolled in Fordham Law School, located in the Woolworth Building, in 1927.15
Finding the law captivating, Eunice graduated in 1932, a year later than planned because she took off a year to care for her ill son and to work in Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign.16 Once admitted to the bar, she successfully defended black voters charged with unlawful registration. While also employed as a researcher in the Women’s Court, she helped start the Women’s Political Council to encourage voter registration, and was appointed to a commission by Mayor La Guardia to investigate the causes of a Harlem riot.17
With the onslaught of the Great Depression, Eunice was named supervisor of the Harlem Division of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee that provided necessities to the poor.18 In 1934, she was nominated by the Republicans for the state assembly but lost after a hard-fought campaign due to the shift by Harlem voters to the Democrats.19

Celebrated Crime Fighter

In 1935, amid national press fanfare, Thomas Dewey was named special prosecutor to attack organized crime in New York. He hired the always serious, “all business” Eunice Carter as an assistant special attorney, the only woman and only black lawyer on his 20-lawyer team.20 Even though the pay was modest, it was an immensely prestigious appointment among lawyers.21

Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971)

Dewey’s first target was gangster Dutch Shultz. Eunice investigated the hoodlum’s activities in Harlem, but Shultz was murdered on the orders of the Mafia’s boss, Lucky Luciano.22 Dewey, therefore, targeted Luciano, but he was unable to find the provable link between criminal activities and the ruthless mobster.23

Eunice believed the Mafia’s prostitution racket was the key. Initially, Dewey was reluctant to pursue prostitution, for he wanted his work viewed as gang busting not a morality crusade.24 With the evidence Eunice produced, however, Dewey was finally convinced.25

Through Eunice’s supervision, and her own dangerous covert forays into the pool halls and bars of Harlem, proof was amassed from dozens of wiretaps in Manhattan and Brooklyn and hundreds of interviews, raids and arrests. It showed the Mafia was extorting hundreds of madams and prostitutes at Luciano’s direction.26

Lucky Luciano (1897-1962)

As Dewey and Carter closed in on the ferocious Luciano, the children of the attorneys in the special prosecutor’s office were sent out of the state or country for safety.27 At his 1936 trial, Luciano was found to be operating a massive compulsory prostitution ring called “the Combination” and was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison.28 The news was sensational, and, for a while, Eunice Carter was one of the nation’s best-known lawyers.29 Dewey always gave her due credit for the victory.

When Dewey was elected district attorney in 1937, he hired Eunice, a masterful lawyer in the courtroom, as New York’s first female assistant D.A.30 When nominated by the Republicans for president in 1944, Dewey made her one of his chief advisors, and she tirelessly campaigned with him across the country.31 Moreover, she used her influence to win adoption by the GOP of the strongest major party platform on civil rights up to that time.32 And, when speaking at Howard University, she condemned the treatment of women in the workplace as “one of the most vicious things in our economic and social order.”33

Eunice resigned from the D.A.’s office in 1945 and returned to private practice.34 After campaigning for Dewey again in 1948, she was active in the International Council of Women.35 In the 1950s, she served as president of the International Conference of Organizations and was a leader in the NAACP and YWCA.36

On behalf of her causes, Eunice traveled America and the world. In doing so, she condemned all forms of organized evil she saw: fascism, communism, the Mafia and the KKK. After the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 and Lucky Luciano, nothing frightened her.

Despite her fierce anti-communism, Eunice felt she never achieved her dream of being a judge because of her estranged brother’s well-known communism.37 Yet she was in constant demand as a speaker and the subject of press interviews until she died of cancer on Jan. 20, 1970, to be hailed as one of America’s greatest prosecutors, the woman who advanced the rule of law and made the case against the biggest gangster of all.38 

RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET)and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.

1. For details on the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, see Alton Hornsby Jr., “Atlanta, Georgia, Riot of 1906” in 3 Encyclopedia of African American History 622 (Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker, eds. 2010).
2. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible 3-4 (2018).
3. Id. at 4-5.
4. Id at 5-6.
5. Id.  at 6.
6. Id. at 22.
7. Id. at 36.
8. Id.
9. See id.
10. See id.
11. Id. at 38.
12. Id. at 38; 268.
13. See id. at 206, 228, 238.
14. Id. at 41-48.
15. Id. at 57.
16. Id. at 59-60.
17. Id. at 62, 85-86, 92.
18. Id. at 64.
19. Id. at 82.
20. Id. at xiv.
21. Id. at 104.
22. Richard Norton Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times 172 (1982).
23. Carter at 120.
24. Id. at 117, 123.
25. Smith at 181-82.
26. Id.
27. Carter at 154.
28. Id. at 149.
29. See id. at 169
30. Id. at 165.
31. Id. at 164.
32. Id. at 220-22.
33. Id. at 197.
34. Id. at 128.
35. Id. at 242-42.
36. Id. at 240, 258-59.
37. Id. at 213.
38. Id. at 272.

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