From Eunice Hunton Carter to Kamala Harris: The Importance of “Firsts”

Eunice Hunton Carter. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Eunice Hunton Carter was catapulted into national prominence 85 years ago as one of a handful of bold mob-busters who made history by prosecuting the notorious Lucky Luciano, she was an unlikely adversary of the brutal gangster.

Hard-working and modest, Carter had been used to being the “first” in several aspects of her life: first Black woman prosecutor in New York County; first Black woman to receive two degrees from her alma mater, Smith College; and one of the first Black women to graduate from Fordham Law School.

But joining a team of 20 white men considered the brightest attorneys in the city was a longshot, even for an overachiever like Carter during an era of stifling racial discrimination and sexism. 

But on June 8, 1936, when the screaming headlines of the New York Daily News and other New York newspapers proclaimed Luciano guilty of 60 counts of compulsory prostitution, prosecutors knew it was Carter who made the pivotal link between the mob and prostitution—a previously unknown relationship that would seal the case for Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey.

The guilty verdict all but guaranteed Dewey’s rise as a prominent politician who would become a three-term governor of New York and, later, Republican presidential candidate and power broker. And it granted Carter a prominence that would ultimately help her become a legal advisor to the United Nations and a social justice pioneer who played key roles in the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

Eight decades later, another Black woman attorney just made history—as Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general, was elected as the nation’s first woman vice president.

But Carter seemed ahead of her time when she spoke at the young age of 26 about the value of “firsts” for under-represented groups and minorities.

She knew that role models were vital because they served as rare beacons of accomplishment for many people who historically had few. And because these trailblazers held power, they had a tremendous influence on others and the ability to break stereotypes. 

She wrote in 1927 that “the pioneer in anything significant occupies … an exalted position while a large portion of the race indulges in a mild form of hero worship. These achievements are the pride of the race; the business of reaching new heights is taken very seriously. Each is a milestone on the road of progress which leads to the goal of unrestricted opportunity.”

Still, it remains a slow climb for women in the male-dominated world of law. Thirty-six percent of the attorneys in this country are women, according to a 2019 American Bar Association report. And 85 percent of attorneys in this country are white, according to the study.

During Carter’s era, the climb was even steeper. In 1947, roughly 8,000 women in the United States were attorneys, according to a story about women attorneys that year in Ebony magazine.  

Predictably, Black women lawyers had it tougher. In 1950, only 83 Black women were lawyers in this country, compared to nearly 7,000 white women and 174,000 men, according to the 1998 book Rebels in Law. Until the mid-1930s, the primary source of legal education for Black people was Howard University because many other law schools, especially in the South, prohibited the admission of Black students. 

Like Carter, Harris realizes the vital importance of paving the way for others and the power a high-profile role model has in influencing others.  

“While I may be the first woman in this position,” Harris said in her post-election speech. “I won’t be the last.” 

Much of this information is taken from the book Eunice Hunton Carter: A Lifelong Fight for Social Justice by Marilyn S. Greenwald and Yun Li (Fordham University Press). 

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About and

Marilyn S. Greenwald is a professor emerita of journalism at Ohio University and the author of four biographies, including “A Woman of the Times: Journalism, Feminism and the Career of Charlotte Curtis” and “Pauline Frederick Reporting: A Pioneering Broadcaster Covers the Cold War.”
Yun Li is a business reporter at CNBC.