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Clockwise: Nicky Barnes, Joey Gallo,

Dutch Schultz and Madame St. Clair.



The Beginning:

The 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.

Madam 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.

Ellsworth "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. Clair.

From 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.

Johnson 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.

Blacks 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.

Before 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.

They 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.

Barnes’ 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.’ 

He 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.

In 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.

Despite 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.

His 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 Program.’

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.”

To read more about Madame St. Clair & Casper Holstein, click on the link below.

Black 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



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