Clockwise: Nicky Barnes,
Dutch Schultz and Madame
first black gangsters of any significance were the policy operators who ran
the numbers rackets in the inner-city neighborhoods throughout this country.
Italian gangster Dutch Schultz began murdering black operators (although
it was rumored he allegedly-had a stunning black mistress). Schultz wanted complete
control of this lucrative racket. Stephanie (Madame) St. Clair stood
in his way, she was the Harlem policy Queen, portrayed by Cicely Tyson
in the film “Hoodlum.” St. Clair ruled the rackets and her syndicate
“The 40 Thieves,” with an iron fist. The “40 Thieves,” became the first
black syndicate in U.S. history. The thieves started out in the 1930's as an
extortion ring, they expanded and operated a string of numbers banks . They
would also launch a cocaine distribution network that catered to NY society.
Schultz took out a contract on Madame St. Clair, a mob assassin was sent
to kill her, she hid in her home; escaping death.
St. Clair was also responsible for bringing the numbers (policy) racket to Harlem
from Cuba. This racket would spread throughout the United States in urban
neighborhoods and legendary gangster Bumpy Johnson was responsible
for downsizing the numbers to "3."
Meanwhile, Schultz was shot several times, as he lay dying in a hospital, he
received a telegram from St. Clair, "as ye sow, so shall you reap."
Blacks gained control after Schultz's death. Italian gangsters decided
to take another approach in dealing with the black operators. They would let
black people act as controllers and numbers runners. These positions made blacks
very wealthy and powerful in their neighborhoods.
"Bumpy" Johnson is referred to as the first black original gangster.
Actor Larry Fishburne portrayed him twice onscreen, in the films "Hoodlum"
and "The Cotton Club.” Bumpy was also the role model for the Harlem
kingpin in the "Shaft" movies and he was like a son to St.
the 1940's to the 1960's, Johnson was the middleman between the Italian underworld
and black criminals. He was known around town as an intellect. He was
also impeccable and erudite. He enjoyed chess and poetry. When
he served a brief prison stint, his fellow inmates nicknamed him "The
Professor." The mob respected him and admired his ability for
settling disputes before they erupted into violence. If you wanted to
do business in Harlem, you paid Bumpy or you died. Everyone had to pay
except the Mom and Pop stores.
was the first black gangster to reach millionaire status, quite a feat for a
black man in the segregated 50's and 60's. Johnson was also one of the
first people, black or white, to have a custom made stretch limo with a driver.
Johnson had a unforgettable presence, when he entered a room in his $1500 tailored
Italian suits, conversation ceased.
He was tall, dark and handsome, he resembled a model. He read Shakespeare,
listened to Beethoven and Henry Mancini. He lived in a penthouse
in Mount Morris Park. Johnson was treated like a celebrity in Harlem.
He was referred to as the ‘Robin Hood of Harlem,’ a ‘king among kings,’
and a ‘killer among killers.’ If you had problems with cops or gangsters,
or loan shark debts, once you were seen in the presence of Bumpy, those problems
disappeared. Johnson was the most powerful black gangster in US history.
So powerful, that he often ate breakfast with mob boss Frank Costello
and accompanied Costello to Cuba to see Lucky Luciano. Newspapers
referred to Bumpy as: “Harlem's Most Famous Underworld Figure.” Three
months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Bumpy was
dining at the ‘Wells Restaurant’ on Lennox Avenue with singer Billy
Daniels, There was always a crowd around Bumpy and he strongly believed
in distributing the wealth among blacks in the community. People gave
him more attention and respect than the celebrities in attendance, all at once;
he started shaking and passed out. He was dead, an autopsy revealed that
he died of natural causes; he was 62. The headlines from the Amsterdam News
read: “BUMPY'S DEATH MARKS END OF ERA.”
had a hard time competing in the drug arena until the emergence of Frank Matthews.
He would become a key supplier in Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore,
Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Baton Rouge and Detroit.
Matthews headed his operation out of an apartment complex nicknamed "The
Ponderosa, the Ponderosa was protected by armed guards as workers
cut and bagged the drugs. This operation would eventually cover the entire
East Coast. At the height of his power, Matthews operated several
drug mills employing more than 100 people. He often strutted around in
mink coats. He owned several apartment buildings and owned a fleet of
luxury cars. In 1971, he assembled the biggest drug dealers in the country
to attend a summit held in Atlanta. The main topic of discussion: how
to break mob control on the importation of heroin so that blacks could implement
their own shipping services.
any of the suggestions were put in place, Matthews was arrested on drug conspiracy
charges. Free on $325,000 bail, Matthews disappeared with $ 20 million
dollars and hasn't been seen since. Meanwhile, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes,
based in Harlem, was quickly obtaining power, often referred to as "Hell
Up In Harlem" at the height of his power. Barnes began his career
as a pusher for an Italian gang in Harlem. He went on his own in 1964.
By 1965, Barnes was selling more heroin than the mob. Since he used the
mob as drug suppliers, no one ever complained. In late 1965, he was arrested
with $500,000 worth of heroin. In prison, he met legendary mob soldier Joseph
(Crazy Joe) Gallo.
had long discussions and agreed to organize all of the city's top black
gangsters into a 'family' to rival the Mafia. Gallo had always been 'black
friendly' and often had blacks in his crew despite the objections of Italian
gangsters. He was often shunned because of his black friendships. Gallo
planned to school the black gangsters on the art of racketeering. First,
they would organize in New York and put together a national syndicate of
black gangsters. When Gallo was released from prison, he immediately
hired a superstar attorney to work on Barnes appeal. Barnes’ 25 year sentence
was thrown out on a technicality. After his release, Barnes called a meeting
of Harlem's top black racketeers to discuss the proposal of a 'black family'
to rival the Mafia. The idea was presented and defeated by a
vote of 7-3. This is the closest the nation has ever come to having a
"Black Underworld." Barnes decided to focus on becoming
the city's leading heroin dealer. He organized a seven-member panel to
carve out drug territories. He began supplying heroin to New York, Canada,
Arizona, Chicago and Pennsylvania. During this time, Barnes became ruthless,
when he suspected an employee of stealing; the man was found dead in a car trunk.
power, fame and wealth reached legendary proportions in Harlem. He was
chauffeured around town in a Mercedes Benz limousine and custom made Ferrari.
He owned 300 tailored suits, 100 pairs of shoes, 50 leather jackets and 25 hats,
all color coordinated. Barnes made millions and invested in nightclubs,
gas stations, travel agencies, car washes and apartment complexes.
People were in awe of Barnes and he was treated like a ‘King in Harlem.’
gave away turkeys on Thanksgiving and gifts on Christmas. He also hosted
an annual ‘Mother's Day’ celebration. He was referred to as the 'Black
Godfather.’ In his heyday, he was the black John Gotti. Federal
authorities caught up with Nicky Barnes in March 1977 after an article appeared,
referring to him as “Mr. Untouchable.” Barnes’ was indicted for selling
40 pounds of heroin a month. He was convicted and sentenced to life in
prison. He could not rely on Gallo to get his sentence reduced or thrown
out because Gallo was killed in a hail of gunfire.
1982, Barnes became a government informant to reduce his prison sentence. He
supplied the authorities with enough information to arrest 44 high-level drug
dealers. During this time frame, other drug informants were released when
their information resulted in arrests, not Nicky Barnes.
his effort, he was never released early or granted a pardon. He served all but
four years of his sentence. In August of 1998, Nicky Barnes was finally released
from prison after serving 21 years.
former associates have put an $8 million dollar contract out on his life. Barnes
was given a new identity and relocated under the ‘Federal Witness Protection
"The Black Mafia" by Francis Ianni, "Easy Money" by Donald
Goddard and "The New Ethnic Mobs" by William Kleinknect and “New York
Magazine, The Return Of Superfly.”
read more about Madame St. Clair & Casper Holstein, click on the link below.
Underworld (The Beginning)
Sources; "The Black Mafia" by Francis Ianni, "Easy
Money" by Donald Goddard and "The New Ethnic Mobs" by William Kleinknect and
New York Magazine (The Return Of Superfly). Photo Credits: AP/Worldwide