Legal Divas of Color: Eunice Hunton Carter

Legal Divas of Color: Eunice Hunton Carter

Every year for Black History Month, I produce a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”.  The aim is to highlight female legal eagles of color, past and present, who blazed the trail for me (as well as many other sisters and brothers to follow).

11. Eunice at work-Philadelphia Sun, date unknown
Eunice at work-Philadelphia Sun, date unknown

Did you know that it was an African American female attorney that brought down mobster Lucky Luciano?

I surely did not!

A dear friend of mine Louise brought this to my attention on Facebook. She posted:

Just finished “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster” by Stephen L. Carter. The book is about Eunice Hunton Carter, the author’s grandmother. The granddaughter of slaves, she was a graduate of Smith College, and later became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University in New York City. In the mid-1930s when special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey selected twenty lawyers to help him clean up the city’s underworld, she was the only member of his team who was not a white male. And it was her work that brought down Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history. This is a remarkable story about a truly remarkable woman.

So of course, I had to investigate!

Eunice Hunton Carter was born in 1899 in the city of Atlanta.  Her parents, who were social activists, encouraged her to push boundaries. After graduating cum laude from Smith College with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1921, she pursed a career as a social worker.  Later, Ms. Carter became the first African American woman to graduate from Fordham Law School in 1932.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to “women’s court” to serve as a prosecutor of women perpetrated crimes — at the time, mostly prostitution. This made her the first African American female Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.

While working in this court, Ms. Carter started to see a pattern — certain prostitutes kept getting arrested all over New York City, and were consistently bonded out by the same bail bondsmen, and represented by the same attorneys. The bondsmen and attorneys were connected to the mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano.  Lucky Luciano created the infamous “Commission” — which brought all five mob families together to settle disputes and carve up territory. He was ruthless, running rackets and “whacking” or murdering anyone who stood in his way.

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Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, photo courtesy of Mob Museum

Armed with her observations, Ms. Carter spoke to her boss, special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and they began to build a case.  They were able to prove that the prostitutes had to kick back half of their earnings for protection as well as representation. This meant Luciano was benefiting from prostitution.  Due to her hard work, they secured a guilty verdict, and Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison. He served 10 years before being deported to Italy (after cooperating with authorities).

Ms. Carter continued to serve as a prosecutor until 1945, when she entered private practice. She married Lisle Carter, Sr., who is one of the first African American dentists in New York. She also advised the United Nations on women’s issues and was active with the United Council of Negro Women and YMCA until her death in 1970.

Get the book by her grandson Stephen L. Carter here.

Ironically, when I first became a prosecutor, my goal was to do mob and drug trafficking cases. Life took me on a different path, but I’m thrilled to see a sister who blazed the trail and was an unsung heroine in the fight against organized crime. With the knowledge that the mob (in general) did not have a high opinion of African Americans or women, learning about her work made it that much sweeter.

Thank you Eunice Hunton Carter for being a true Legal Diva of Color!

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Legal Divas of Color: Ada Louis Sipuel

Legal Divas of Color: Ada Louis Sipuel

Hello RLD Family,

Well, it’s that time of the year again! Every year during Black History Month, I do a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”. The purpose of the series is to highlight the accomplishments of female attorneys of color — women who have been trailblazers in their own right in the legal community. 


Many of you have heard of the landmark education discrimination case “Brown v. The Board of Education“. However, before the Brown case, there was Ada Louis Sipuel. Ms. Sipuel was born in Oklahoma in 1924. She endured much during her childhood due to growing up during the height of the Jim Crow era. Her house was burned; her father, who was a pastor, was jailed unjustly. Ms. Sipuel lived in a time where lynchings of African-Americans were the norm. All of these experiences gave her a burning desire to see justice served, and to become a lawyer. However, the law school in Oklahoma did not allow students of color. Students who wanted to pursue a law degree were forced to go out of state, most notably to Howard University School of Law. The concept of “separate but equal” meant that segregated schools were the norm. Of course, although equal on paper, the schools were not equal in reality. White schools had better resources, leading to a wider array of opportunities for graduates. In 1946, Ms. Sipuel applied to the law school at the University of Oklahoma. The law school president  reviewed her transcript, and indicated that there was no academic reason for her not to be accepted — only the color of her skin.  

With this information in hand, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on her case. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice [the first African-American to do so] argued masterfully as to why these “separate but equal” laws were unjust. The court agreed;  Ms. Sipuel was allowed to enroll at the University of Oklahoma law school. The state of Oklahoma tried to get around this ruling by hastily building another school just for her but that plan failed. She then finally entered the law school with white students in 1949. Of course, knowing the time period, this was a difficult road for her. She was forced to sit at the back of the class with on the bench with a sign “Coloreds Only”.  Despite the obstacles, she persevered and graduated in 1952.

She decided to use her law degree as a teacher after briefly practicing law. She became a faculty member at the all Black Langston University, rising to become the chair of the Department of Social Sciences. Her alma mater finally righted the past wrongs by appointing her to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1992. Once segregated against, she then was able to run the school that had treated her unfairly.

Ms. Sipuel passed away in 1995. Hear more of her intriguing story as told by her son Bruce. 

Thank you Ada Louis Sipuel for being Legal Diva of Color, paving the way for millions of African-Americans to be able to attain legal degrees. I would not be here without your sacrifice.

Ada Sipuel signing the register of attorneys, 1952 Barney Hillerman Collection

Legal Divas of Color: Darcel Clark

Legal Divas of Color: Darcel Clark

darcel sworn

The third Legal Diva of Color this month is Darcel Clark. On January 16 of this year, Ms. Clark made history as being the first woman to become the Bronx  District Attorney, and the first African American female District Attorney in the State of New York!

Her path to success was certainly not an easy one. As a true “daughter of the Bronx”, she hails from the Soundview section of the borough.  Her parents both worked tough jobs, but took the time to be involved in their community.  These early lessons clearly rubbed off on their daughter. Ms. Clark attended New York City public schools, then went on to receive her undergraduate degree at Boston College, and her law degree at Howard University.

Upon graduation, she returned to the Bronx and never left. Ms. Clark was a prosecutor for 13 years in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, rising to the rank of Supervisor of the Narcotics Bureau, and Deputy Chief of the Criminal Court Bureau.  In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed Ms Clark to the bench.  She served as a judge for a total of 16 years before winning the coveted position of District Attorney in a landslide election in November 2015.

Ms. Clark stated in her swearing in speech at Lehman College:

“I can say to any little girl, you know, if you work really hard, you can go on to law school, you can become an Assistant District Attorney, you can become a judge and then you can become District Attorney of the Bronx,”

The new District Attorney will focus on wrongful convictions, corruption, gun violence, and reforming the Rikers Island jail complex.

Thank you Darcel Clark, for making history, and being a Legal Diva of Color!

darcel

Saving the Best for Last? Vanessa Williams Comes Full Circle

Saving the Best for Last? Vanessa Williams Comes Full Circle

vanessa-williams-crowned-america
photo credit AP

30 second quiz — name another Miss America other than Vanessa Williams.

Yep. I couldn’t either.

Just over 3 decades ago, Vanessa Williams became the first African American to ever hold the title of Miss America. Ten months later, just seven weeks short of the end of her reign, she was forced to resign due to nude photos that were released of her.

It’s ironic, how in stark contrast to this present age of social media, where having a sex tape is almost a norm among celebrities, that a few nude photos could cause such an uproar.  But it did. I remember it firsthand, and all the judgment surrounding her. Lauren Duca in the Huffington Post did a great piece on the hypocrisy that surrounds beauty pageants in general as well as this scandal. You can give it a read here.

But my thoughts are more focused on the “story behind the glory”. Look at her now! After the initial scandal, she was a virtual pariah.  No one would work with her.  But all she needed is one break — and once she got it, she was unstoppable! She is an accomplished singer, songwriter, actress, author, dancer, model and producer. Vanessa Williams received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.

The story comes full circle as she returned to the Miss America pageant to judge this year’s competition. Miss America CEO Sam Haskell apologized on stage to both Vanessa Williams and her mother for the prior Miss America organization “making her feel less than the Miss America you are“. See the apology here.

vanessa-williams-receives-apology-from-miss-america-pageant-christal_rockBetter late than never; and she accepted the apology like a true queen.

But it is clear from the trajectory of Vanessa William’s career that she does not need the validation of anyone, least of all the Miss America organization. However, I wonder (maybe I am being a wee bit cynical here), if with the progress of the women’s movement, and the growing viewpoint that pageants which showcase predominantly beauty not brain are antiquated, that the Miss America organization is hoping to mend fences with a certain demographic while renewing interest with others?

Only time will tell.

But Vanessa Williams has been, and always will be, Miss America. And the only one anyone will remember, with a successful career after the crown.

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Always feel free to weigh in!

M.

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

kamala harrisContinuing in my Black History Month Legal Divas of Color series, I now bring you Kamala Harris. Although I featured Ms. Harris last year (read the post here), she’s doing even bigger things in 2015!

When current United States Senator for California Barbara Boxer announced that she would not be running for re-election in 2016, Kamala Harris announced that she would run! In her statement, she said “I want to be a voice for all Californians”

In the days that followed, Ms. Harris picked up endorsements from some heavy hitters, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (whose name is still being discussed as a potential Presidential candidate).

If elected, Kamala Harris would be the first Indian American in the US Senate.  She is descended of a Jamaican American father and an Indian mother. Ms. Harris has also just been sworn in for her 2nd term as Attorney General for the State of California.

Thank you Kamala Harris, for continuing to push boundaries, being a great role model, and being a present day Legal Diva of Color!