Thursday, December 31, 2020

Eunice Hunton Carter, 1899-1970

[My annual exam in American Legal History also includes a biographical essay.  Previous years’ were on Stella Akin, the father-daughter duo Gaius and Jane Bolin, and others.  The subject of this year’s essay was Eunice Hunton Carter.  In writing it, I relied heavily upon Stephen L. Carter’s Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster (Henry Holt 2018).  Also, Carter appears, facing away from the camera, here.  DRE]
Eunice Hunton Carter (1899-1970) was born in Atlanta to Black middle-class parents.  Her father, William Hunton, was the grandson of a Virginia slave who purchased his freedom and moved to Canada, where William was born.  College-educated, he founded the “Colored Division” of the Young Men’s Christian Association and in that capacity traveled widely in the United States to create chapters that recruited local African Americans to the YMCA’s creed of “education, hard work, and Christian virtue.”  While founding a chapter in Norfolk, Virginia, he met and married Eunice’s mother, Addie Waites Hunton, who had been educated in the elite Boston Latin School.  The couple moved to Atlanta shortly before Eunice’s birth.  Both parents traveled, leaving Eunice and her younger brother Alpheaus in the care of a maid or family friends.  Addie gained a national reputation as a founder of Black women’s clubs and lecturer.  In a famous address, “Pure Motherhood the Basis for Race Integrity,” she argued that the most important duty of Black women was to tend to the family.  

The Huntons’ life was shattered in 1906 when a terrible race riot devastated Atlanta’s Black middle-class neighborhood.  Within months they moved to Brooklyn, New York.  Both parents continued to travel, in Addie’s case, for the Young Women’s Christian Association, the NAACP, and a group advocating world peace.  As before, Eunice and her brother the children usually roomed with other families.  Even William’s death in November 1916 did not slow down Addie’s clubwork.  Indeed, after the American entry into World War I, she spent 18 months in France bolstering the morale of Black troops stationed there.

Eunice was already on her way.  In 1917 she enrolled in Smith College, an elite and overwhelmingly White women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts.  A society matron in the NAACP may have paid her tuition.  A government professor introduced her to Calvin Coolidge, at the time, governor of Massachusetts, who gave her advice and let her read in his well-stocked library as she worked on her thesis on state government.  The experience reinforced her lifelong attachment to the Republican Party, a family legacy.  In 1921, she graduated cum laude with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Eunice spent one miserable academic year teaching at a Black college in the Deep South before returning to New York City, where was a substitute teacher and wrote short stories, some of which appeared in journals alongside works by Langston Hughes and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Her mother helped her find jobs in various charitable and race organizations in Harlem.  Through one of her projects, a free dental clinic, she met Lisle Carter, an immigrant for the Caribbean island of Barbados, who owned the most profitable dental practice in Harlem.   They married in November 1924, and a year later their only child, Lisle Jr., was born.

Soon Eunice Carter was back at her social work jobs.  She helped her mother host an international “Pan-African Congress,” which brought to New York City people of African descent from around the world to discuss “the many problems of racial and social uplift.”  She also joined in several civil rights campaigns, such as protests of white-owned businesses that refused to hire African Americans.  But she wanted more.  As a child of eight, she had told a friend that she wanted to be a lawyer so she could “make sure the bad people went to jail.”  Starting in 1927, while still employed as a social worker and against her mother’s advice, she enrolled in the evening program at Fordham Law School, one of only three women in a class that would graduate 367.

Carter’s initial grades were well above average, but she had to take a year off, probably to care for her son, who may have been ill.   She graduated from Fordham Law School in 1932, the first Black woman to do so.  In May 1933, on her second try, she passed the New York bar exam.  The success came during an odd interlude, lasting into the winter of 1933-1934, during which she may have had a hysterectomy and battled depression.  

Carter attempted the practice of law but had few clients.  She wrote a few wills and represented a few misdemeanor defendants before magistrates sitting without a jury but spent more of her time as a supervisor for the Harlem Division of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, which coordinated the distribution of cash, in-kind benefits, and public works jobs during the Depression.  She also was an unpaid assistant in the Harlem branch of the city’s Women’s Court, probably as an interviewer and counselor of the prostitutes whose arrests made up most of the docket.  Carter’s biographer called Women’s Courts “dark, fetid, grim chambers, loud and disorderly and presided over by bored, time-serving magistrates, many of whom . . . were thoroughly corrupt.”

She also campaigned for Republican political candidates.  When stumping in Harlem for a Black Republican candidate for the State Assembly in 1928, she was appalled by the dirty tricks of Tammany Hall Democrats, including a fake flyer that played upon the racial fears of the district’s White residents.  In that year she also worked for Herbert Hoover’s election as president but also protested that his handlers, seeing a chance to win the votes of White Southerners appalled by the selection of the Irish Catholic Al Smith to head the Democratic ticket, were ignoring Black Republicans and dealing only with the party’s “lily-white” Southern faction.  Even so, she gave a rousing speech on Hoover’s behalf in 1932, and when the Republicans needed a candidate to run for the state assembly seat encompassing Harlem in November 1934, she agreed.  Despite the endorsement of the nonpartisan Citizens Union, she lost.

The race made her known outside Harlem’s Black social elite and earned her the gratitude of the city’s Republican leaders, which they soon repaid.  In March 1934, Harlem residents, angered by what proved to be a false report of police brutality, attacked white-owned businesses in Harlem.  Three African Americans died, and hundreds were arrested.  The newly elected mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, a Progressive Republican who won with Black support (including Carter’s), appointed a biracial investigatory commission to investigate.  As its secretary, Carter became the public face of the commission, whose final report La Guardia deemed too critical of the racial biases of city officials to release to the public.

A still greater opportunity came a few months after her appointment.  An increase in mob-related violence forced the Tammany-approved District Attorney to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate organized crime in New York City.  Thomas E. Dewey, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York at the end of the Hoover administrator, got the job.  When assembling his staff of twenty lawyers, he told a local judge he wanted to hire a woman.  The judge recommended Carter, and Dewey appointed her on August 5, 1935.  

Dewey was intent on busting the mob’s most lucrative enterprises, including the “numbers racket,” an illegal lottery.  Carter was put to work examining tickets and found those favored by Harlem’s residents never won.  But she was also convinced that the mob ran Harlem’s brothels, a view that went against received wisdom but was consistent with her observation of the Women’s Court.  Prostitutes who paid their employers a weekly “bonding fee” invariably escaped jail time.  The same lawyer appeared on their behalf, and when he did, arresting officers mysteriously forgot material details.  Carter reasoned that the mob must have used bribed police officers and judges. She persuaded a reluctant Dewey to conduct raids that led to the conviction of a top mobster.  Carter never appeared in court, however.

In the fall of 1937, Dewey easily won election as District Attorney.  Upon taking office in January 1938, he appointed Carter Deputy Assistant District Attorney in charge of the largest division, Special Sessions, whose staff, consisting mostly of white male lawyers, prosecuted 14,000 misdemeanors a year.  Her annual salary of $6,500 (about $122,000 today) was more than Charles Hamilton Houston made from working for NAACP.  Newspaper profiles had her working until at least 7:00 and often 11:00 at night but also mentioned her attire and on at least one occasion photographed her cooking.

Other African American lawyers took notice.  Carter addressed the national meeting of the National Bar Association in 1938 and served on two standing committees, Resolutions and on Discriminatory Legislation.  Sadie Alexander congratulated her on conducting “actual trial work” before juries.  “I cannot say too much for the ability that you have shown as well as the diplomacy you must have exercised to have obtained such a position,” Alexander wrote.

In her public addresses she was something less than a thorough-going feminist.  She did announce, “I believe in the independence of women,” but she also told an audience at Howard University in 1937 that too few Black children “learned the habit of working” and that Black women had “to see that the path is broken in the right direction.”  In 1938 she told a group of Black women voters, “Never argue with a man.  I believe that I have quarreled with a man only six times in my life.  Always it resulted in disaster.”  She elaborated: “Women’s influence should be from behind the throne, not on it.”   And: “Women must never forget that men should dominate the race and that a race is only as strong as its men.  We must continue to inspire them.”

The advice jibed uneasily with her own personal life.  While Carter attended law school, her son Lisle, Jr., often lived in the home of his father’s brother in New Jersey.  Then, in February 1935, the nine-year-old boy was sent to live with his father’s family in Barbados.  It would be a year before Eunice would see him; thereafter she visited only annually.  When he turned 14, he returned to the United States, only to be sent to prep school in upstate New York.  By that time his parents were living separately.  Lisle, Sr.’s extramarital affairs were well-known in the community; Eunice contemplated leaving him for another man.  Still, they stayed married and would later live together until Lisle Sr.’s death in 1963.

Carter continued to campaign for Dewey whenever he sought elective office, such as his unsuccessful run for governor of New York in 1938 and for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940.  The latter bid included a whistle-stop campaign through Illinois, ending in a Chicago appearance in which Carter and other African Americans joined Dewey on the platform.  She supported Dewey in his successful gubernatorial bid in 1942, again in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, and yet again in his presidential campaign against Harry S. Truman in 1948, notwithstanding the Democrats’ impressive civil rights platform.  Promotions or other preferments no longer followed, however.  Instead, Dewey’s successor as District Attorney demoted her (albeit at the same salary) to head the Adolescent Offender Bureau, where she implemented an innovative probation system for teenage offenders.  A judgeship she coveted went not to her but a Black male lawyer who started in the District Attorney’s office after she did.  

Carter thought she knew the problem: her brother.  Alphaeus Hunton had gotten a bachelor’s degree from Howard and a master’s degree from Harvard.  He then returned to Howard as an instructor of English and Romance Languages Department while pursuing and ultimately receiving a Ph.D. at New York University, with a dissertation, directed by a Marxist professor, on the politics of an English poet.  From at least 1933 onward, he met with Black communists, and he was a leader in John P. Davis’s National Negro Congress.  In 1943 he moved to New York to edit the journal of the Council on African Affairs, a group that turned up on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.  For refusing to give the House Un-American Committee the records of another Communist Front group, he was imprisoned for six months in 1951.  After his release, he could find no employment and emigrated to Africa.  Although Carter had severed her ties with Alphaeus years earlier, she suspected, correctly, that the FBI had a substantial file on him and that it mentioned her and her connection to Dewey.

Carter left the District Attorney’s office in January 1945.  She attempted to practice law on her own but found leadership roles in Black women’s groups more interesting and remunerative.  Most of her new work had an international dimension, as when she represented the National Council of Negro Women at the organizational meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco.  She attended several overseas conferences as a representative of NGOs in the 1940s and 1950s.  “Each individual in this world has his own peculiar character and his own particular talent,” she said at one in 1951.  Democracies allowed the individual to “grow in character and in personality according to his own personal ability.”  Dictatorships, in contrast, forced him to “slave at tasks he would never choose for himself.”  They also denied women the chance to “choose and develop their individual beings in an atmosphere of freedom.”