Tag Archives: Nicky Barnes

Harlem Gangsters

2The rich history of Harlem could never be told in few words, that is, if one intends to come close to capturing the essence of Harlem’s grandeur. Aside from Harlem’s artistic achievements, what was most romanced was the role of its underworld, which was a huge part of the nightlife and social scene.

In the 1920’s, the Jewish and Italian Mafia played major roles in running the whites-only nightclubs and the speakeasies that catered to white audiences. While the famous mobster, Dutch Schultz, controlled all liquor production and distribution in Harlem during prohibition.

Rather than compete with the established mobs, black gangsters concentrated on the “policy racket,” also called the “Numbers game.” This was a gambling scheme similar to today’s lottery that could be played, illegally, from countless locations around Harlem. By the early 1950s, the total money at play amounted to billions of dollars and the police force had been thoroughly corrupted by bribes from numbers bosses.

When you talk about Harlem gangsters, particularly of that era, two names come to mind immediately. One of the most powerful early numbers bosses was a woman, Madame Stephanie St. Clair, a black French woman from Martinique known as Queenie or Madame Queen. A tall, abrasive and tough woman, with a seldom-seen gentle side, ran the famous New York extortion gang known as The Forty Thieves.

The Forty Thieves had a reputation for being so tough that even the white gangsters would not interfere with their illegal operations or attempt to take over their turf. She utilized her experience and talents to set up operations as a policy banker and recruited some of Harlem’s most noteworthy gangsters to support her and her growing numbers business. Within a year, she was worth more than $500,000 with more than 40 runners and ten comptrollers in her charge.

The other was the legendary Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson known as the Godfather of Harlem. You may recall Lawrence Fishburn played Bumpy Johnson in the movie Hoodlum. Bumpy was one of Madame Queen’s main recruits. He was a colorful character from Charleston, S.C. He had to Harlem with his parents when he was a small boy and was given the nickname, Bumpy, because of a large bump on the back of his head.

Bumpy was a dapper gangster who always made it a point to wear the latest and best clothes while flashing wads 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, which he would not hesitant to use. Bumpy feared nobody and did not shy from confrontations.

He was known for barroom clashes over the slightest issue, having a short fuse and for his arrogance. He never learned to curb his temper or to bow his head to any man. It was because of his negative demeanor that he spent almost half of his life in prisons before he even reached age 30. During his interments, he became an avid reader and began writing poetry. Bumpy also proved to be an incorrigible prisoner and spent one-third of a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement. Because of his attitude, he was shuttled from prison to prison until his release in 1932.

Despite his tough-guy reputation, Bumpy Johnson had a soft side. It was common knowledge among Harlemites that he often helped many of Harlem’s poor with secret cash donations and gifts. Madame Queen liked what she saw in Bumpy and offered him a position as a henchman in her numbers racket. He accepted and quickly gained her trust. One of his first tasks was to confront the Bub Hewlett gang. It erupted into one of Harlem’s most violent and bloody gang wars. Eventually, Bumpy gained the edge and defeated Hewlett, temporarily saving the numbers game from the Mobs first takeover attempt.

The relationship between Madame Queen and Bumpy was strange and tenuous at best. Some said they had an ongoing affair – others claimed the odd couple were only business partners. Bumpy never abandoned his pimping and robbery professions both of which irritated Madame Queen, but both knew what would make the numbers game a success, so they successfully coexisted. These bosses became financial powerhouses, providing capital for loans for those who could not qualify for them from traditional financial institutions – loan sharking. They invested in legitimate businesses and real estate as a way to legitimize their profits.

The Godfather of Harlem lived until 1968, dying from a heart attack as opposed to death by the gun like most did in his business. As a testament to his success, he maintained control of the underworld for nearly forty years with some saying that nothing illegal took place in Harlem without his permission. After Bumpy’s death, the underworld became loosely organized and overcome by the drug trade with its many factions. Bumpy’s protégé, Frank Lucas, and his rival Nicky Barnes became the most dominate players in the game.

Frank Lucas operated the largest drug business in Harlem after Bumpy’s death during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was particularly known for cutting out the middle man in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from sources in the Golden Triangle of Thailand. Lucas boasted that he smuggled heroin using the coffins of dead American servicemen. He controlled such large quantities that he was a supplier to the Mafia. When Frank was busted and facing life in prison, he flipped turning state’s evidence for the Fed’s causing the conviction of more than a hundred associates. However, it is important to note that most of those criminals were on the police force. His career was dramatized in the 2007 feature film American Gangster.

Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, known as Mr. Untouchable, led the notorious African-American crime organization known as “The Council” made up of seven powerful Harlem gangsters similar to the Mafia that controlled the heroin trade. Barnes was convicted in 1978 of multiple counts of RICO violations, including drug trafficking and murder, for which he was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole. While in prison, Barnes became a “Rat” turning state’s evidence against his former associates in “The Council.” In exchange for his testimony, Barnes was released into the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Comparing the gangsters of the two eras; one thing is clear despite the viciousness of their chosen profession, the contemporary gangster’s careers were short lived, and all of their ill-gotten gains were lost. As a result, of the carnage distributed by these characters, the drug addiction rate in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average and twelve times higher than in the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York’s average.

In the 1980’s, use of crack cocaine became widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing of additional drugs. Dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions or over deals gone bad causing the murder rate to skyrocket. By the end of the crack wars in the mid 90’s, coupled with the initiation of aggressive policing crime in Harlem plummeted and a sense of normalcy returned to the once proud historic hamlet of Harlem.

Black History is our history, and our history is American History! And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…


The Apollo Theater Connection

FotoFlexer_PhotoIn the early 70s a new breed of gangsters appeared in the hamlet of Harlem who were very different from the legendary figures of old, such as Madam Queen and Bumpy Johnson. We’ve all heard of Frank Lucas whose power derived from cutting out the middle man and Nicky Barnes who came to be known as “Mr. Untouchable” who established the mafia like “Council”.

There have been books and movies about these guys, deserved or not, but their stature has gained near legendary status. But there was one member of the notorious or so-called Council that is seldom mentioned. He is Guy Fisher who is the only BLACK MAN to own an icon of our culture “The Apollo Theater”. That’s right, the world renowned and legendary Apollo Theater throughout its existence has only been owned by one BLACK MAN. I found this amazing!

Fisher saw his narrow escape from prison as a second lease on life after a case that ended in a huge jury and decided to become a legitimate businessman. In early 1978, using monies he’d earned through the heroin trade, Fisher purchased the crumbling Apollo Theater in Harlem. He placed the deed in his half brother’s name, and began employing members of the neighborhood to help in its rehabilitation. In May of that year, the new Apollo was unveiled to the community, drawing Motown acts such as Gladys Knight, The Temptations, and other legends.

By 1973, at the age of 25, Fisher made it into Barnes’ exclusive underground organization, The Council, which consisted of a seven-member circle of trusted associates. Each of the individual partners in Barnes’ syndicate had their own crew of men to distribute heroin to smaller dealers. They would then collect the drug money, and distribute the profits accordingly. Through these dealings, Barnes and Fisher became close friends and confidantes. They also began investing in businesses together, including two, multi-million dollar housing complexes.

A year later, local police stopped Fisher for a routine traffic violation. Fisher was using a false driver’s license, and attempted to evade arrest by bribing law enforcement agents with $100,000 he had stashed in his trunk. The officials refused the money, and the incident landed Fisher in prison for nine months. While serving his time, The Council was under close investigation by undercover law enforcement agents for their dealings in the heroin trade.

In 1977, sparked by an article in The New York Times magazine naming Barnes “Mr. Untouchable,” then-President Jimmy Carter placed enormous pressure on federal agents to dismantle The Council. That September, Barnes and The Council were placed on trial. Much of the federal law enforcement’s undercover surveillance of Barnes and his group occurred while Fisher was imprisoned.

Because of this fact, Fisher’s lawyer was able to argue that his client did not participate in the conspiracy mentioned in the federal case. This fact led to a hung jury in Fisher’s trial, and he became the only member to escape sentencing. Despite his legitimate success, Fisher resumed the heroin trade as head of The Council with Barnes’ help. But after money for Barnes’ legal fees started to disappear, the former drug kingpin grew resentful of Fisher’s success on the outside. The final straw came when Fisher began an affair with one of Barnes’ girlfriends. Feeling betrayed, Barnes broke the code of The Council and turned informant in the early 80s.

In March of 1983, using information Barnes supplied, federal agents finally gathered enough evidence to put Fisher and several of his associates on trial. He was sentenced to life without parole for his role in running a criminal enterprise, and was sent to Marion Federal Prison in Illinois. While in prison, Fisher wrote several novels, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and began mentoring inmates. In 2008, he completed his Ph.D. in sociology. He continues to serve his life sentence, despite several appeals, at the United States Penitentiary, Tucson in Arizona..

Despite how the ill gotten gains were obtained I wondered how many people knew that we never owned one of the African American community’s most recognizable and distinguished icons. Maybe I’ll just call this a little known fact hidden in black history. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…

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