The first black Republican feminist?

 Stephen Carter

By Stephen Carter Bloomberg View

Published August 19, 2019

Although largely forgotten today, during the 1930s and 1940s my grandmother, Eunice Carter, pictured at left, was one of the most prominent black women in the United States.

At a time when so much was closed to those of her race and gender, she accomplished extraordinary things. She was a prosecutor in New York City, where she helped convict Lucky Luciano, the nation's most powerful mobster. She has been much on my mind the past few years, because I've spent the past several years writing a book about her. She is, in a sense, in my head.

Eunice was a tireless campaigner for women's rights. She even warned of the evils of what we now call sexual harassment back in the 1930s, when few people imagined that the treatment of women in the workplace mattered.

At the same time, she was a prominent Republican, heavily involved in national and local campaigns. She could get GOP presidential candidates on the telephone. And before you recoil in partisan horror, let's bear in mind the strange inversions of our tortured racial history.

Eunice's Republican Party was not the party of today. She was born in 1899, and for most of her life the Republican Party was the pro-civil rights side. The Democrats - who at one convention in the 1920s made black delegates sit behind chicken wire - manifestly were not.

Eunice's mentor, Thomas Dewey, ran for president three times, twice gaining his party's nomination. He lost each time. But he campaigned on the strongest civil rights plank either major party had ever adopted. He was the first presidential candidate in the nation's history to openly and repeatedly court black voters. He was frequently photographed at black gatherings, and spoke proudly about employing and socializing with black folk - including my grandmother.

(And this at a time, remember, when President Franklin Roosevelt, despite repeated requests, was unable to bestir himself to allow black reporters at his press conferences; and when FDR's White House falsely claimed that the NAACP supported the administration's policy of keeping the armed forces segregated.)

Eunice grew up at a time when nearly all black Americans voted Republican - the party of Lincoln! - but she had particular reasons for her partisan preference.

She always suspected the motives of Democrats, whom she viewed as the party of racist mischief and dirty tricks. Her family had barely escaped the 1906 Atlanta riot, fomented by Southern Democratic politicians.

In the 1920s, she had watched her friend Hubert Delany, a successful black lawyer, go down to defeat in a New York congressional race he was favored to win, after the city's Democratic machine arranged for men in blackface to march through white precincts, asking voters whether they wanted to be represented by a Negro.

And she despised the Democrats for the many long years during which they controlled Congress and the White House yet refused to so much as bring any civil rights legislation to a vote.

That's all ancient history, of course, but it's the history in which my grandmother's politics were forged.

Her mother had been a suffragist who also fought for better treatment of women by their own husbands. Eunice, who overcame her share of barriers to become a prosecutor, was a committed campaigner for women's rights. In particular - at a time when hardly anybody spoke out on the subject - she worried about the plight of women who were mistreated at their jobs. Eunice herself had suffered discrimination as the only woman (and the only person of color) in an office with 19 white male prosecutors.

And she understood that some forms of discrimination were worse than what she'd experienced. In a May 1937 speech to the Howard University Alumnae Club, she described the treatment of women in the workplace as "one of the most vicious things in our economic and social order." She added:

"There are men who exact from women a personal relationship of a rather intimate nature in order that the women may feel secure in their jobs. Boiling in oil is just a little too good for those kind of men."

(Buy the author's latest book, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster, at a 37% discount! by clicking here or order in KINDLE edition at a 50% discount, just $14.99 by clicking here. Sales help fund JWR.)

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Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. His most recent book is The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama (2011). He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.