Alumni of Distinction
Fordham Law’s Alumni of Distinction exhibit celebrates graduates of the Law School who have broken barriers in the legal profession, opened doors for underrepresented groups, blazed trails for future generations, and made an indelible mark on our country and around the world.
Ruth Whitehead Whaley
First black woman to enroll at and graduate from Fordham Law School
First black woman to practice law in New York state
Founder and first president of the Black Business and Professional Women’s Club
First black woman to pass the North Carolina bar exam
Expert in civil service law
Ruth Whitehead Whaley’s life is a compelling story of firsts. The first black woman to enroll at Fordham Law, Whaley graduated at the top of her class in 1924. In 1925, she became the first black woman to practice law in New York state, and in 1933, she was the first black woman to practice law in her home state of North Carolina.
Whaley was born on February 2, 1901, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to two schoolteachers, Charles and Dora Whitehead. An outstanding student, Whaley attended Livingstone Prep School and Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, going on to work as a teacher at the North Carolina State School for the Deaf in Raleigh after she graduated college in June 1919. Whaley married Herman S. Whaley on July 3, 1920, in Goldsboro. The couple had two children, Herman M. Whaley and Ruth M. (Whaley) Spearman.
With her husband’s encouragement, Whaley made the decision to attend Fordham Law School, which had voted to admit women students only a few years before her enrollment. While at Fordham Law, Whaley corresponded with famed sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois regarding an instance of discrimination that she had experienced during her 3L year. Whaley had won a writing contest due to an excellent series of her papers, and she was entitled to receive the reward of a free set of books. However, she was denied the prize for reasons that were never made clear to her, and she was stonewalled by administrators when she attempted to find out why. It turns out the prize was withdrawn at the last minute when the donor learned of Whaley’s race. Thanks in part to Du Bois, Whaley’s story was made public in the July 1924 issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP.
Despite this shameful institutional incident, Whaley called her time at Fordham Law “for the most part pleasantly and profitably spent,” praising the School for its “magnanimous spirit and lack of caste.” She graduated cum laude in 1924.
After earning her Fordham Law degree, Whaley went on to a distinguished career in private practice. Widely regarded as an expert in civil service law, she won several landmark cases in this area, and often argued before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. She was particularly recognized for her outstanding representation of black local government employees, including in one instance her husband. She maintained her practice in New York until 1944 when she began to get involved in Democratic Party politics.
In 1945, Whaley ran for a New York City Council seat as one of the first black women ever nominated by a major political party in the United States. In 1949, she wrote an essay titled “Women Lawyers Must Balk Both Color and Sex Bias,” in which she described the “penalty” of women—and particularly minority women—lawyers who must outperform their male colleagues lest “the overlooked errors of a male colleague become the colossal blunders of the woman.” In the essay, Whaley also expressed concern about the continued lack of black female lawyers in the country, noting that in 1920 there were only four, while in 1949, there were fewer than 150, with fewer than 100 of these actively practicing law.
From 1951 to 1973, Whaley served as secretary of the New York City Board of Estimate, assisting in numerous areas of municipal policy, including city budget, land-use, contracts, franchises, and water rates.
Throughout her life, Whaley was highly active in organizations dedicated to the advancement of African Americans. She was the founder and first president of the Black Business and Professional Women’s Club, and she served as the president of the National Council for Negro Women. She was especially renowned for the career assistance she provided to aspiring black lawyers at a time when racial discrimination was rampant in the United States. She was also a member of the Fordham University Council, a body of prominent individuals who served as ambassadors for the University.
Ruth Whitehead Whaley passed away on December 23, 1977.
Today, a number of societies, awards, and scholarships are named in her honor. The Association of Black Women Attorneys’ Ruth Whitehead Whaley Scholarship is awarded annually to law students on the basis of service to their community and financial need. At Fordham Law, students in the top 25 percent of each class are honored as Ruth Whitehead Whaley Scholars. And the Ruth Whitehead Whaley Trailblazing Alumnus Award, instituted in 1979, is awarded by the Black Law Students Association to Fordham Law alumni who “embody Whaley’s bold spirit and commitment to excellence.”
First black woman assistant district attorney in the state of New York
Helped convict Lucky Luciano, one of New York’s most notorious mobsters
Chief of the Special Sessions Bureau for the New York County criminal justice system
Chair of the United Nations’ International Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations
Member of the U.S. National Committee for the U.N. Economic and Social Council
Raised in a society with constrained expectations about race and gender, Eunice Carter triumphed far beyond the stifling conventions of her day. Indeed, by the 1940s her professional and political successes had made her one of the most famous black women in the United States.
Carter was born on July 16, 1899, in Atlanta, Georgia, to William Alphaeus Hunton, Sr., the only black international secretary of the YMCA, and Addie Waites Hunton, a social worker. In 1924, she married dentist Lisle Carleton Carter, a Barbadian immigrant who owned Harlem’s most lucrative dental practice. They had one child, Lisle Carter, Jr.
The granddaughter of slaves, Carter earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she met and befriended then-Governor Calvin Coolidge. In the early 1920s, Carter was active in the Pan-African Congress, a precursor to the United Nations in which delegates from African countries gathered to discuss how to grapple with colonial rule, racial discrimination, equal economic opportunity, and a host of other issues affecting Africa at the time. Carter briefly worked as a social worker before making the decision to study law. She graduated from Fordham Law’s evening program in 1932, while working full-time as a supervisor in the Harlem division of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee.
In 1935, Carter became the first black woman assistant district attorney in the state of New York. Working with special prosecutor Thomas Dewey’s famed “Twenty Against the Underworld”—a team of twenty lawyers Dewey selected to help him fight organized crime in New York City—Carter was instrumental in securing the conviction of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the most powerful mobster in the country. She was the only member of the team who was not a white male.
It was Carter who first observed that organized crime was likely involved in running major prostitution rings in New York City, and it was this revelation that was the first domino to fall on the way to Luciano’s ultimate conviction. Carter observed in the course of prosecuting prostitutes that most of the defendants were represented by the same lawyers, had the same bondsmen, and often told the same stories, which were usually so convincing that the women were acquitted. Furthermore, a disbarred lawyer named Abe Karp who was reputed to have ties to organized crime was usually present at these trials.
Carter went to Dewey with her theory as he was assembling his team; the special prosecutor was so impressed with her observations that he promptly hired her. After an investigation into Carter’s theory, Dewey ordered raids of over 80 major prostitution houses to pull together prostitutes and madams who would potentially provide information leading to the prosecution of the head of the operation. Out of the over 100 women arrested, only three were willing to talk, but Carter, who conducted the interviews herself, was able to pull together the details of the operation. These details included evidence that Luciano was the head of the entire enterprise. The prosecution was ultimately successful in leading to Luciano’s conviction, as well as the conviction of several other high-ranking organized crime figures.
In 1937, Carter was appointed chief of the Special Sessions Bureau of the New York County criminal justice system by Dewey, thanks in part to her work on the Luciano investigation. As chief, she presided over a department that dealt with over 14,000 misdemeanor cases each year and became one of the highest paid African-American lawyers in the country.
Carter would go on to an illustrious career in international service, which included her attendance at the founding session of the United Nations in 1945. In 1947 she was named a consultant to the UN Economic and Social Council for the International Council of Women and, later, chair of its Committee of Laws. In 1955 she was elected chair of the UN’s International Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations, the highest organization post ever given a woman at the time, and in 1962, she became a member of the U.S. National Committee for the UN Economic and Social Council.
Carter was active in many organizations throughout her life, including the National Association of Women Lawyers, the New York Women’s Bar Association, the YWCA, and the Harlem Lawyers Association. She died on January 25, 1970.
Carter is the subject of the critically acclaimed book Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, written by her grandson, Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter.