By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan CitizenPT. 2: THE PROTECTOR
The legacy of the real-life black Harlem gangster Ellsworth Raymond (Bumpy) Johnson is a complex one, but audiences won’t get any sense of this in the brief portrayal of him in the opening minutes of the current motion picture American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as heroin kingpin Frank Lucas and Clarence Williams III as Johnson, who, according to Lucas, was his criminal mentor. (See article below: “American Gangster: It ain’t necessarily so”)
The criminal resume of Johnson, who was born in Charleston, S. C., and moved to Harlem with his parents when he was a small boy, is neatly summarized by Walter Bell on Court TV’s Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods website:
“He was a dapper gangster who always made it a point to wear the latest and best clothes and to flash a wad of cash wherever he went. Bumpy was a pimp, burglar and stickup man who possessed a recalcitrant attitude. He always carried a knife and gun, neither of which he was hesitant to use. All too often Bumpy ended up in barroom clashes over the slightest of issues. …
“His negative demeanor led to his spending almost half of his life in prisons before he even reached age 30. … Bumpy also proved to be an incorrigible prisoner and spent one-third of a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement.”
Upon Johnson’s release from prison in 1932, he built a powerful criminal empire that included narcotics, prostitution, strong-arm enforcement and the “numbers” racket, or illegal lottery.
According to Mayme Johnson, Bumpy Johnson’s 93-year-old widow, “He had a hand in almost every illegal enterprise operating in Harlem.”
At the time of his death from a heart attack on July 9, 1968, he was free on $50,000 bail following a 1967 indictment by a federal grand jury on charges of importing narcotics from Peru for sale in Harlem.
But many Harlemites, police and prison authorities and some of the latter 20th century’s most important black radical and nationalist leaders, including Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Floyd McKissick and H. Rap Brown, were also aware that Johnson possessed a distinctive racial consciousness, which, contrary to his portrayal in American Gangster, expressed itself in more than cheap promotional stunts.
It is this that makes Johnson’s legacy an ambivalent one, not reducible to good-or-bad summations, much less to one-dimensional Hollywood portrayals.
Bankers of last resort
Johnson’s underworld role is part of a reality that is little known to white America.
During the era of racial segregation and overt discrimination in the U. S., when black businesspersons found it difficult or impossible to obtain loans from white banks, they were often obliged to turn to black numbers bankers like Johnson, who had the discretionary income to support black business initiatives.
Indeed, many numbers bankers were highly regarded in their communities. They provided the seed money or support for all manner of black businesses, including funeral homes, hotels, insurance companies and newspapers.
For example, in Detroit during and following the Depression, John Roxborough — the dignified, college-educated manager of boxing great Joe Louis — Irving Roane and Everett Watson were among the leading bankers of the numbers, known locally as the policy. All were known and respected for their philanthropic acts.
Indeed, according to Paradise Valley historian Jiam Desjardins, who had two uncles who were numbers bankers during the same era, the profits generated by these men were the “foundation” of black business activity in Detroit’s famed commercial and entertainment district.
However, these relatively victimless activities should be distinguished from Johnson’s more mercenary criminality, particularly drugs and prostitution.
Johnson’s racial consciousness apparently developed early and ran deep, if selectively.
During the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s, the teeming black Harlem ghetto, known as uptown, was an after-hours playground for thrill-seeking whites in search of forbidden sex, liquor, drugs and black entertainment, sometimes at clubs that barred black people as patrons.
Johnson had nothing but contempt for these transient gawkers, according to Helen Lawrenson, a white lover, in Sondra Kathryn Wilson’s Meet Me at the Theresa: The Story of Harlem’s Most Famous Hotel (New York: Atria, 2004).
“We ain’t no zoo,” Johnson told Lawrenson. “How would you like it if we was to go downtown to your clubs and restaurants to stare at you people? Not that we’d get in. So why should we let you up here? I can’t no way go downtown and walk into the Ritz [hotel]. … Except maybe I’m walkin’ behind you, carryin’ your bags. …”
The independent-minded Johnson felt an affinity for other black people who bucked the unequal racial and political status quo. In 1943 and 1945, for example, he supported the controversial Benjamin J. Davis, a Harvard Law School-educated organizer of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), to represent Harlem on the New York City Council.
Paul Robeson’s protector
But the clearest example of Johnson’s sense of racial allegiance occurred two years later. He described it in a late 1967 interview with expatriate African American journalist William Gardner Smith, which was later published in Return to Black America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970).
In it, Johnson discusses his role in protecting Paul Robeson, the multitalented actor, attorney, athlete, singer and activist, whose communist and Afro-Asian sympathies and radical associations caused him to be banished from the stage, theatre and screen and have his passport lifted during the height of the anticommunist hysteria known as the McCarthy era.
“He studied me for a long moment,” Smith wrote, “and I could sense the welling up of a fierce pride inside him. He said, ‘…what I really am, when the chips are down, is a black nationalist.’
“Then he said, ‘Remember the Peekskill riots, back in 1950 [Sept. 4, 1949 — PL], when all these crackers had Paul Robeson surrounded and wanted to do him in? I heard that on the radio. So I got some of my boys together, between seventy and a hundred, and I called the chief of the state police and said, “Listen, this is Bumpy Johnson, we’re coming through to get Paul out, and if anybody tries to stop us, police or civilians, there’s gonna be a hell of a lot of bloodshed.”
“‘Then my boys and me, we piled into a fleet of cars and we drove. We drove all the way to Peekskill, the police got out of our way; they had been warned. We had every kind of gun imaginable. And we drove right through them screaming civilian crackers, too, and they damn sure got out of the way, too. And we brought old Paul out. Brought him out in a convoy. Because Paul is black, he’s my brother, and I wasn’t gonna let no crackers set hand on him.’”
Although elements of Johnson’s account might have been exaggerated, it nevertheless confirms Smith’s sense of his “fierce [racial] pride.”
In his magisterial biography Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1988), Martin Bauml Duberman describes Johnson as a “friend” and “devoted protector” of Robeson.
Malcolm X’s protector
Similarly, Johnson offered his protective services to Malcolm X, the African American Muslim and nationalist leader.
This was after Malcolm X’s break with Elijah Muhammad’s sectarian, politically anemic Nation of Islam (NOI), which quickly devolved into a dangerous “one-sided thing,” as he described it to “New York Times” reporter Theodore Jones three days before his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965.
“I’m a marked man,” he assured Jones. “No one can get out without trouble, and this thing with me will be resolved by death and violence.”
Malcolm X reportedly knew Johnson when the former New York NOI minister and national representative was a minor Harlem street hustler in the early 1940s known as “Detroit Red” because of his flaming red “conk,” or relaxed hairstyle, which was produced by a lye and egg concoction.
Peter Goldman, Malcolm X’s best biographer, briefly recounts Johnson’s discussion with the president of the Sunni Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and chairman of the pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in The Death and Life of Malcolm X (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974, 1979):
“One day, he [Malcolm X] had coffee at 22 West [Restaurant on 135th Street in Harlem, his favorite post-NOI luncheonette] with an old Harlem racketeer named Bumpy; Malcolm talked about the threats against his life, and Bumpy argued that he ought to go to war against his enemies. ‘Malcolm,’ he said, ‘they ain’t ready to die no more than anyone else. You pinch them, they’ll holler, too.’ Malcolm seemed mostly amused.”
Earl Grant, one of Malcolm X’s closest aides, recalled the incident somewhat differently in an interview with Gil Noble on the long-running New York black affairs series Like It Is in 1983.
After a near-confrontation with NOI members at a meeting in Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist church on Dec. 12, 1964, “When we left, we went up to 135th Street. … And there used to be a shoeshine stand there and Bumpy Johnson was sitting up in there getting his shoes shined. And [when] we come across [the street], he looked out, he jumped down, run out and grabbed Malcolm’s hand.
“He said, ‘Hey, brothers!’ Said, ‘Been reading about you. I hear you got some problems.’”
(Johnson might have been referring to the Dec. 4, 1964, issue of Muhammad Speaks, the NOI newspaper, which included a five-page attack on Malcolm X by Boston NOI Minister Louis X [now Farrakhan], which Goldman correctly described as a “death warrant.”)
“He [Malcolm X] said, ‘Yeah, I kinda have some…,’” Grant continued.
“Bumpy told him…, ‘Well, you know how to handle that, man. All you gotta do is make a phone call and that’d be taken care of.’
“They talked for awhile about the old times. And we walked down 135th toward Lenox Avenue and … I says, ‘You know what he meant, don’t you?’
“He says, ‘Yeah, I know what he meant. … I don’t want black folks killing black people.’”
“That was his attitude,” Grant said. “And a lot of those people down there [NOI members] need to be told that the only reason some of ‘em [are] still walking around is because Malcolm allowed them to keep walking around.”
Grant added that there was “another group of his old buddies from his running days out in the streets,” who visited Malcolm X at his Hotel Theresa office. “They came up and offered their services — just for old times’ sake. That they’d take care of it, you know.”
However, Malcolm X again declined. “I believe in taking action,” he told Ted Jones, “but not action against black people. No, sir.”
The late Abiola Sinclair claimed in The Harlem Cultural/Political Movements, 1960-1970: From Malcolm X to “Black is Beautiful” (New York: Gumbs & Thomas, 1995) that Johnson also had his own reasons for clashing with the NOI, which campaigned against drug use. In an undocumented account, she asserted:
“Drug lord Bumpy Johnson had run-ins with both the Nation of Islam and Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, and in fact lost his grip on that area.”
The masjid, located on 116th Street at Lenox Avenue, was named in honor of Malcolm X, its former minister, after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975. It was known as Muhammad’s Mosque No. 7 during Johnson’s time.
Frank Lucas claims to have “owned” the other end of 116th Street, at Eighth Avenue, in the early 1970s.
Johnson reportedly also afforded protection to one of the New York chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was founded as a pacifist interracial group in the 1940s, but was transformed in the tumult of the 1960s into an all-black Black Power group advocating self-defense.
Reportedly, Johnson risked conflict with the Italian mafia in doing so. Again, William Gardner Smith is our best source for this incident:
“…in July 1967, a striking thing occurred. A group of young members of CORE decided to picket a police station in Greenwich Village, where police were accused of brutality against the blacks. On the first day the picket line was formed, the youths received a ‘semi-official’ warning that local gangsters of the Mafia intended to attack them, with clubs, brass knuckles, and with guns, if necessary, to force them to disperse. …
“Bumpy was informed of the threat against the CORE pickets. He promptly sent the following message to the local Mafia leaders: ‘If any of those CORE kids are harmed, I will not guarantee the safety of any Mafia member in Harlem.’
“The youths were not molested.
“I questioned Bumpy about these reported incidents, and he confirmed them. Concerning the CORE episode, I asked why, as an acknowledged member of the ‘underworld,’ he had taken the risk of conflict with the Mafia.”
It was at this point that Johnson said, “Because what I really am, when the chips are down, is a black nationalist.”
Given Johnson’s support for CORE, it is unsurprising that Floyd McKissick, the national director of the organization, was “shocked over the death of Bumpy Johnson,” according to an outraged Ernesto E. Blanco, an associate professor at Tufts University.
Blanco cited McKissick’s reaction in his testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearings on “subversion” in campus disorders on June 19, 1969.
McKissick, Blanco fumed, “must have known this man had a dope record a mile long. … There is no telling the harm that Bumpy Johnson did to the black race.”
In December 1965, Johnson took a page from civil-rights groups like CORE by staging a sit-down strike in a police station, according to the Rev. John H. Johnson (no relation) in Fact Not Fiction in Harlem (Glen Cove, N. Y: Northern Type, 1980).
He refused to leave as a protest against their continued surveillance of his activities. He was charged with “refusal to leave a police station,” but was acquitted by a judge.
Advising Amiri Baraka
Johnson could also affect the role of the wise elder “race man.”
Sometime in 1965, after the fiery poet, playwright and essayist Amiri Baraka, then still known as Le Roi Jones, abandoned his East Village Bohemianism, embraced black nationalism and moved to Harlem in the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination, he was summoned to a meeting with Johnson, who wanted to discuss Baraka’s new Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS).
Expressing great regret for his youthful naïveté, Baraka recounted the story in The Autobiography of Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka (New York: Freundlich, 1984):
“We met a lot of people, many of who had our best interests at heart, but we did not take some of the best advice. We did not benefit from the wisdom of our elders. We met Bumpy Johnson, the grand old man of organized Harlem crime. Bumpy was one of the first to insist that black dudes run their own rackets and stop paying off the white boys. He was a respected elder, straight as a board, with an office in a warehouse that sold exterminator [products], a legit front for his widely known and widely respected operations.
“For an hour or so Bumpy talked to me like my father, telling me I had to meet different people and get hooked up really to the community and not get too far out so that negative folks could shoot me down.
“I listened and was proud to be there with the bald-headed dignified Mr. Bumpy Johnson, but I couldn’t really hear what he was saying. I didn’t really understand. But Bumpy could see we were heading for trouble if we didn’t get fully conscious in a hurry, but I was too naive to dig.”
A quarter-century later, in 1992, Baraka collaborated with percussionist, drummer and composer Max Roach (who died on Aug. 16, 2007) to compose a bebop opera, or “bopera,” with the curious title The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson, in homage to the old man.
Baraka does not mention that Johnson, too, wrote passionate poetry with a hard race-conscious edge. In Freedomways, the liberal-leftist Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement, Johnson contributed “Democracy at Home”:
Black babes are spat upon,
their mothers raped
While mobsters howl the police
stood and gaped.
Their homes are burned, their
churches’ mood defiled.
And their appeals are answered,
Rapping with H. Rap Brown
Finally, Johnson reportedly had an interesting conversation with H. Rap Brown, (later known as Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), the highly quotable new chairman of the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC’s arc toward black nationalism preceded and inspired CORE’s.
Since Brown succeeded Black Power firebrand Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) as SNCC chair in May 1967 and moved to Harlem shortly thereafter, his talk with Johnson must have taken place within a year of Johnson’s death in July 1968.
As in the case of Robeson, Malcolm X, Baraka and CORE, Johnson made clear his sympathy for Brown’s nationalist politics, which were widely blamed by the news media, local authorities and mainstream black leaders as the spark for the insurrections, or “riots,” that had rocked nearby Newark, Detroit and scores of other cities the summer before.
However, if the report of their talk — which appears to have been based on some form of government surveillance — is accurate, Johnson coupled it with a threat borne of self-preservation.
The conversation was recently revealed by Randall Bennett Woods in LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (New York: Free Press-Simon & Schuster, 2006), based upon a report by Harry C. McPherson, Jr., then the special counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson:
“In their efforts to quell discontent before it erupted into violence, [New York] Mayor [John V.] Lindsay and local black leaders sometimes found themselves forming unusual alliances. ‘We heard of a conversation between Rap Brown and a man named Bumpy Johnson — allegedly the top Negro in the Mafia rackets,’ McPherson told the president. ‘After Brown spoke, [Bumpy] Johnson told him, ‘I agree with a lot of what you said. Except I don’t want any riots. I got to raise $60,000 to buy off some people downtown on a narcotics rap. I can’t do that if there’s a riot. You start a riot and I’ll kill you.’ Brown is said to have left town the next day.”
Would that some inspired filmmaker or documentarian should one day see in this remarkable real-life person reason enough to create a truly authentic representation of the truth of his life — which is stranger, and more dramatic, than fiction.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Lee
Correction: In the story and a photo caption in Pt. 1 of this article last week, Bud Hewlett, who was played by Clarence Williams III in the 1997 movie Hoodlum, was described as Bumpy Johnson’s “fictional nemesis-turned ally.” In fact, he was a real Harlem gangster — PL.