The Long Rise and Fast Fall of New Yorks Black Mafia

In 1974, it seemed as the Godfather model was evaporating amid indictments and strikes on its leaders and as middle-class white inhabitants poured from America’s inner cities.

That was Francis A.J. Ianni printed Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime, enlarging on the notion at the end of A Family Business, his anthropological analysis of a Mafia family two years before, it was a natural progression in the order of crime that the Italians “should weaken and give way to another wave of aspiring ethnics, like the Jews and Irish failed before”

Famous New York journalist Pete Hamill blurbed the book, calling it “nothing less than a major ethnic succession to electricity, as Italian-Americans and the rest pockets of non-Italians give way to the new rulers of the Mob… it’s no accident, of course, that now that Blacks are starting to run amounts, we are hearing more calls for legalization…”

I asked Hamill this season whatever happened to the Black Mafia. He laughed: “Well, I figure that I did not observe the Russian and Colombian dinosaurs”

In fairness to Hamill, nobody in 1974 predicted those two groups would rise to this power, as few foresaw how the Black Mafia could be destroyed from inside because it based its business model on drug importing and dealing. That match may not last long because it always brings the federal government in, and after the feds have been in, everyone eventually goes down. The old saw that you can’t fight City Hall isn’t really true–everything you can’t combat is your FBI and RICO indictments.

“From the early 1970s black gangsters were caught in a very weird moment,” Hamill told me.

The old-line Italians were going to prison or getting killed like Joey Gallo in 1972 or shot and left for a vegetable such as Joe Colombo in 1971. The Italian Mafia was clever with this Colombo hit as they obtained a black man, Jerome Johnson, to do the job. Of course, Johnson was killed at the scene by Colombo’s guys, but it turned out to be a good ruse supposedly ordered by Joey Gallo, who as I said met his maker eight weeks afterwards for the Colombo hit and other sins against the Mafia powers which were…

Considering all the societal shift in the nation during and after the Vietnam War and their infighting, the Italians began to lose the areas they’d once run. Old Italian strongholds have been lost in Brooklyn, East Harlem, cities in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They were being chased by black gangsters only due to the amount of blacks moving to these areas. That was going on throughout the nation.

Nevertheless, the black gangsters had no real strategy–no household long-term aim–regarding what they were likely to do beyond the present time. The Dark Mafia became an ad hoc mob and coped with everything in the present time. They’d no five-year plan such as real successful mobsters such as Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello had. You can’t run an effective organized crime racket with no strategy…

In 1976 so the biggest black gangster of that moment, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, became such a flamboyant figure he was known to everybody. The New York Times did a profile on the man [“Mister Untouchable”] he sat for. You can’t have the Times write about you if you’re a gangster and hope to get away with anything.

Successful gangsters can’t be known. Look at Paul Castellano. No matter what you think of this man, nobody knew who he was till John Gotti had him killed in 1985. He went years with no one knowing a thing about him. Subsequently Gotti knocked him off and took on the headlines and got himself thrown into jail till he died a broken and bitter man in 2002. Gotti showed off and obtained the nickname of the ‘Teflon Don.’ He broke the old Italian code of maintaining a low profile, and the feds forced him cover it.

He must have heard from Nicky Barnes that you can’t be a successful mobster and advertise it by driving around in flashy cars and wearing designer suits. You have to work literally in the underworld to be successful. You can’t become known as a gangster. As soon as you’re known, you’re finished. The old-timers understood that. Possibly the most successful black gangster from the old days was Bumpy Johnson, but the black gangsters after him did not have some continuity. Bumpy Johnson left a pit and no tradition was passed.

— Pete Hamill
Bumpy Johnson

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson mastered the Harlem underworld from 1932 to 1968, and motivated fame and fear that suffered after his passing. When Gordon Parks released Shaft three years after, the protagonist modeled him on, played by Moses Gunn, was renamed Bumpy Jonas. Johnson still had a lot of tough family and friends and Parks did not need trouble. Laurence Fishburne captured Bumpy Johnson’s suave character twice, in 1984’s The Silk Cluband 1997’s Hoodlum. Fishburne had the Robin Hood from the ‘hood swagger the real Bumpy Johnson was known for.

Many claimed that it was Johnson who’d rescued the numbers racket from being taken over by white gangsters, who’d derided it during Prohibition as a “poor man’s policy” or “ni**er pool”

However, as word got out that some of the black underworld leaders were getting very rich running this particular venture, the white mobsters took another look and then made their move. The blacks could keep them at bay until “Black Wednesday” hit New York City in 1931, when the amount 527 was heavily played it broke the bank at many of policy novels.

The Harlem number houses then went to Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz for financing. Schultz, who saw the ending coming for Prohibition and bootleg booze, bailed them out in exchange for control of this match.

Most of the houses caved, not because Schultz hired a black thug called William “Bub” Hewlett and a squad of goons to split heads and bend knees for Your Combination, as the match was known on his view. 1 strong and ambitious woman, Madam Saint Claire, ran a sizable numbers book that refused to join up with Schultz. She hired a little-known 26-year-old from prison called Bumpy Johnson to raise a gang at her expense and fight Hewlett’s crew.

Bumpy and Bub Hewlett took turns shooting and robbing each other during Harlem. The road war ended in 1935, when Schultz was gunned down in a Newark steakhouse for additional filthy deeds deemed unacceptable by New York’s crime leaders. The new syndicate let the blacks in Harlem keep the numbers racket provided that they paid 1 percent off the top. In 1935 law enforcement officials estimated that the numbers racket has been a 100 million racket.

Bumpy Johnson now had the respect of this black gangsters in Harlem and the brand new syndicate run by the Italians. He turned into what was termed a persuader–a leg-breaker and a hit man to whoever was paying the highest dollar, and his services were in high demand. Bumpy was among the few blacks the mob boys trusted, and several in Harlem had any truck with him, because if they did they were not around very long.

Johnson was born in 1906 in Charleston, South Carolina, but abandoned the South as a young boy to live in New York with an older sister. The streets of Harlem took him in, and by 15 he was a second-story burglar before moving to armed robberies. His sister knew nothing of his own antics, as he managed to graduate from Boys High and proceeded to do one semester at City College. His formal schooling ended when he was busted for a burglary at 19. He did seven years bouncing across the prison system and became known as “The Professor” because he spent almost all of his time reading history and philosophy and becoming a master. Over the span of his lifetime, he set in over 26 years in prison, and every time he moved off he researched every book he can get his hands on.

When he was released out of what was be his final sentence in 1963, Bumpy said he was turning legit, and to prove it he started the Palmetto Exterminating Business on Second Avenue. He settled together with his wife and claimed he wanted to lead a quiet life. In 1967, federal agents acting on a stool pigeon’s tip followed Bumpy in his vehicle. He saw them into his rearview mirror and took them on a wild car chase through Manhattan and to Queens. The feds nabbed him on the Van Wyck Expressway. He was arrested and then indicted by a federal grand jury for drug dealing although no drugs were found in his vehicle. Bumpy made the $50,000 bail and awaited another trial.

He would never get it. On July 7, 1968, Bumpy was eating at Wells Restaurant in Harlem with Frank Lucas (more on him in a bit) when he keeled over and died of a heart attack.

Two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Amsterdam News proclaimed: “BUMPY’S DEATH MARKS END OF AN ERA.”

His funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, and Rev. John J. Johnson noticed that Bumpy was “… not a coward and that he never uttered a friend. He had great ways and was generous to a fault. He determined early in life not to become a man, a flunky, or a beggar… Perhaps there was no other way for him to become a man…”

As his wife and kids left the church to bury Bumpy up in Woodlawn Cemetery, an unnamed black police sergeant told an Amsterdam News reporter: “He was a hood, a thug, a man who served time for trafficking in narcotics… He was no great in my mind because this was what he made his money.”

The late, great Jimmy Breslin understood Johnson from decades chasing stories on the streets of Harlem. He understood the terrible things Bumpy had completed but told me he couldn’t help but like the man.

“I understand the man was a gangster, but he had personality. He only hurt people that probably earned his anger”

Breslin told me in 1965, after his younger sister got a job as a school teacher in Harlem, he’d called Bumpy to ask if he would keep an eye out for her and make sure she stayed safe.

“So that my sister comes home one day and tells me how good it is up in Harlem and how nice and considerate the children were. She told me that the children would bring her apples like they were in certain country school from the 1930s. I had to laugh at that one. I understood Bumpy talked to the children and gave them apples to contribute to her. She had to be the most powerful person in Harlem. If Bumpy Johnson gave you coverage in Harlem, you can walk around with a wad of hundreds in your mitts and nobody would rob you”

Bumpy even assessed on her Breslin recalled:

“She told me this nice older man came and that he was a buddy of my brother, Jimmy, and some sister of Jimmy was a pal of his. He introduced himself as Ellsworth. My sister told him she that she got the job because the federal government hired her in an effort to get more teachers to inner-city schools. Johnson told her that he too had also worked for the federal government for several years. She asked what did he do and that he laughed and told her that he was a guest at many federal prisons for far too many years.”

Breslin laughed. “Back then it was a pleasure to cover offenders like Johnson. They were not into drugs and their crime was more self explanatory with gambling and loan sharking. After the medication required over the crime scene, it was not as much fun anymore.”

Frank Lucas

In 2007, the film American Gangster told the supposedly true story of Harlem legend Frank Lucas–the man who says Bumpy Johnson died in his arms at Wells Restaurant. I say supposedly because you have to take anything that a drug dealer says with a fair amount of skepticism, and the film is based on the tales that Lucas has spun through the years. I’d bet not all his tales are true, but the truth never got into the manner of a Hollywood film.

Before the film, I knew about the legend of Frank Lucas–who had a major drug ring operating up and down the East Coast in the ’60s and ’70s–from road sources and an superb 2000 profile of him from Marc Jacobson in New York magazine.

Lucas’ drug ring–the “Country Boys,” all family members and childhood friends from his hometown in North Carolina–had quite the spin. First, it was not just retailing; it was distributing. And Lucas and his team had an ingenious way of growing heroin into America: They’d American soldiers out the caskets of additional American soldiers who were killed in Vietnam, and they filled the base of the caskets with major weight heroin. Lucas has claimed–nobody could prove this–that he had $100,000 worth of heroin smuggled onto Henry Kissinger’s very own plane, with old Henry none the wiser.

Lucas was an all-around bad man who helped fuel the heroin plague in New York that killed thousands of young people and, even when he was busted, turned on all his friends to decrease his prison sentence.

In February 2007, the New York Post interviewed Lucas and the godfather of his son, former federal representative Richie Roberts, who in the film American Gangster is portrayed by Russell Crowe. Roberts helped bring down Lucas and got him to reverse on his old associates; both have been friends ever since.

“Frank set up a pipeline that has been unprecedented. It brought in countless millions of dollars worth of dope,” said Roberts. “They were OD’ing from Maine to Florida… it was coming in at an incredible rate; it was actually an outbreak. Hence the government set up strike forces in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Philly…”

Roberts managed to float Lucas’ ring and then got him to reverse on everybody that was involved. “His certainty and collaboration afterwards totally ruined the heroin connection between Southeast Asia and the U.S.. It led to over 150 major players. I am not saying that he has not killed an awful lot of folks, but he rescued an awful lot of lives by doing this.”

It was not out of a bout of conscience.

“Kind of sonofabitch I found myself being, kind of money I wished to create, I would have to be on Wall Street. On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn’t get a fucking janitor job Wall Street,” Lucas told New York magazine in 2000.

Lucas was a hands on drug dealer. He would dress up like a bum and sit in an old beat-up car by his drug corners to be certain his product–a powerful brand of heroin together with the road name Blue Magic–has been getting sold and nobody has been stealing from him.

Lucas told New York, “…By four o’clock [in the day] we had sufficient ni**ers in the road to make a Tarzan movie… By nine o’clock, I ai not got a fucking gram. What’s gone. Sold… and I got myself a thousand dollars.”

Lucas grew up in La Grange, North Carolina, also claims he became a proficient pig and chicken burglar after the Klan murdered his cousin. After a prison bid and then a fight with a thug, he came up to New York in 1946 to escape the South and there.

He hooked up with Bumpy Johnson, who saw something in the young Frank Lucas and took him in, and educated his protg how to dress and take himself in the town.

Lucas: “Bumpy was a gentleman among gentlemen, a king among kings, a killer one of killers, a complete book plus a bible onto himself.”

However, where Johnson was a committed writer and writer, Lucas was something else. As he put it “There was not gonna be no next Bumpy. Bumpy believed in that share-the-wealth. I was another sonofabitch. I wanted all of the money myself.”

Lucas claims he travelled to Thailand and the Golden Triangle to install his distinctive method for importing heroin, also made millions before Jan. 28, 1975, when NYPD and DEA agents arrested him in his New Jersey home.

In 1976, Lucas was convicted of both state and federal drug felonies and obtained a 70-year sentence. He turned in every dealer he could and was allowed out of prison in 1981–a mere four years in his 70-year sentence. But crime was Lucas’ blood and from 1984 he was back in prison. Once again, he wormed his way out of serving his full term.

He claims he did not turn rat to escape prison early, noting that he never testified in court against anyone. It’s a doubtful claim.

Nicky Barnes

Still another gangster celebrity of the ’70s has been Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, who hooked up with a few Italian gangsters in wake up and upon launch started an unholy alliance between blacks and Italians that made him among New York’s biggest drug distributors. Barnes was well enjoyed by the black community because of his flashy dress, his expensive cars, and his ability to beat indictment after indictment.

In 1977, the same year that The New York Times magazine ran a cover story profiling “Mr. Untouchable,” that he was finally touched, and delivered upstate using a 20-year sentence. Four years later, a smart detective who’d helped bring Barnes down helped get the word to Barnes his former associates had broken his promise to support his wife and kids, and instead were stealing from him. With revenge in his mind, Barnes decided to flip his testimony contributed to 50 convictions of mobsters on drug charges.

A massive contract was set out on Barnes’ lifetime, but he was buried deep in the prison system and it never arrived. In 1997, he walked out of jail and is now an old man living out his golden years with his family parts unknown in the witness protection program.

I interviewed the decorated detective who helped take Barnes down and then reverse him. The detective’s name was Sonny Hight, a dapper, light-skinned black man with a melodious voice.

I labored the Barnes situation and did well with it because I understood how to treat gangsters. I gave Nicky Barnes a little respect. That is all it took. Show him regardless of what he did he’s still a person, and I–a authorities–understood that. I didn’t treat him like a monster and that I managed to get him to cooperate and put down a lot of bad men. That was a challenging case and that I worked quite difficult at it. That is what most great police work isonly dogged determination to get the job finished. It is not for everybody.

After we had Barnes, the suggestion was to flip him, and I managed to get his confidence and reveal him to help us would only help him. It did. He got out of jail early and managed to continue and lead a free life. It might not be as high-flying as he had been, but he was free.

— Sonny Hight

Then there’s the person who got away: Frank Matthews.

Frank Matthews

For a period in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Matthews seemed untouchable because, such as Barnes, he only used relatives or boyhood friends from his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. His team supplied Boston, Philly, Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit, while Matthews based himself in New York and Durham, midway between Miami and New York–his first two biggest sockets–and far from the spotlight.

He also understood the Black Mafia had to cut the Italian one to live. He would bring black gangsters into Las Vegas and Miami and preach to them how they had to work together and keep the Italians from their small business.

Matthews, the DEA said, “controlled the cutting, packaging, and sale of heroin in every major East Coast city,” while also working on the wholesale side, sending kilos to other large dealers. It worked for a while, but the feds caught up with Matthews and arrested him at his Brooklyn home.

Matthews made his bail and supposedly captured a $20 million paychecks that he had hidden, and was never heard from again. The only thing he left behind when he fled Brooklyn was $350,000–the exact amount his bail bondsman could have had to sacrifice because of his visiting city.

Frank Lucas told Mark Jacobson his thoughts Frank Matthews: “Some say he’s dead, but I understand he’s living in Africa, like a king, together with all the fucking money in the world”

And Frank Matthews did it once having to rat anyone out.

By the end of the 1970s, the feds had removed most of the large black drug dealers. The lottery had substituted the amounts, and the rise of community policing cut to prostitution, which had been the 2nd biggest racket run by black mobsters as the match left the streets and South American, Russian, and Chinese gangsters–many of these immigrants with hard-earned experience living brutal police states–opened operations in small apartment buildings.

Subsequently crack substituted heroin and created a bloodier and less-organized drug marketplace that made casualties of a generation of consumers and dealers.

I talked with T.J. English, who’s spent his life reporting crime, lately about the black mob.

“To believe that African Americans could have a crime structure such as the mob is foolish; they are two distinct cultures. The black gangsters had the amounts, prostitution, and drugs. By 1980, they all had was medication. However, so much as drug marketing goes, they never controlled the wholesale finish. They were, and are, at the supply end. Blacks never controlled the quantity of money required to be the wholesalers of medication”

I told English I had talked with a low-level member of the Genovese family, and he claimed that the difficulty black gangsters had was they never attempted to buy off politicians or judges, while that was among the Mafia’s major expenses.

“I really don’t think back then politicians or judges could have taken the money had the black gangsters attempted to bribe them,” he said. “They would not have gotten into bed together. The criminal justice system in this nation is a very European-based system that was racist. They were the ones that took black gangsters out, maybe not the Italians. It was the FBI who did not need to see a black mob triumph more than the Mafia.”

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