Bumpy Johnson, infamously known as the “Black Godfather,” reigned supreme in Harlem in the early 20th century. The notorious crime boss was at the center of corruption bubbling out of the popular New York City neighborhood at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. From racketeering to drug trafficking and loan sharking, Johnson became a legend in the criminal world for his suave demeanor, impeccable style and strategic mind. But how did he climb the ranks of the drug-riddled streets of the “Black Mecca” so fast? Let’s take a look back at the infamous crime boss’s sordid past.
Johnson may have earned his street cred in Harlem, but he was actually a native of Charleston, South Carolina. He moved to Harlem with his family as a child in 1919. According to a New York Post interview with Chris Brancato, one of the creators behind the hit show Godfather of Harlem, which is based on Johnson’s life, the bigtime drug lord was sent up north by his father who feared “that his inability to be subservient would eventually get him lynched.”
Johnson was constantly in fights with the “hostile white kids” at school, a situation that could turn dangerous for a young black child living in the deeply segregated South.
Sadly, Johnson’s father’s dreams of a grandiose life for his son never came true. By age 15, Johsnon was heavily entrenched in a life of crime. He was committing armed robberies with gangs across the city and extorting everything and anyone in sight.
By 17, Johnson was locked up at the Elmira Reformatory. Around the same time, the calculated bandit met William “Bub” Hewlett, a gangster who took a liking to Johnson’s dedication to the street life. He invited the young criminal to work for him, protecting Harlem’s notorious numbers runners.
The numbers game
The numbers game, also known as the Italian lottery, dominated the organized crime world in Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s. It was an illegal lottery where people could bet as little as a penny to win big cash. The game became so lucrative that Bronx mobster Dutch Shultz began to force some of the key players in the scene to work for him or lose out on their profits, according to Casino.org. Many would cave and end up working for the big-time numbers guru, but not Stephanie St. Clair. She was the “Queen of Numbers.”
In the 1930s, Johnson became the right-hand man of Stephanie St. Clair. Johnson’s intelligence and street smarts made him an invaluable asset to St. Clair, and he quickly gained a reputation as a formidable opponent to anyone who dared to cross him or his boss. Johnson helped St. Clair launch a full-on war against Shultz, which caused a number of murders and kidnappings to occur across Harlem. In fact, it was during this time that Johnson earned the nickname “Bumpy” due to the bump on the back of his head.
As Prohibition came to an end in the 1930s, Johnson expanded his criminal operations into other lucrative ventures, including illegal gambling, drug trafficking and loan sharking. Johnson’s criminal empire grew rapidly, and he became one of the most powerful and feared crime bosses in Harlem, earning the respect and loyalty of his associates.
In addition to drug trafficking and racketeering, philanthropy also helped Bumpy’s street cred to soar
Despite his racketeering and other crime-riddled activities, Johnson was also known for his philanthropy and community involvement. He was known to help those in need and was often seen as a Robin Hood-like figure who provided for the less fortunate in Harlem. He was known to donate money to charitable causes and support local businesses, which earned him a level of respect and admiration among the African American community in Harlem.
However, Johnson’s criminal activities eventually caught up with him. Throughout his criminal career, he was arrested more than 40 times. In 1952, he was sentenced to 15 years at San Francisco’s infamous Alcatraz. But despite his time behind bars, Johnson remained a formidable figure in Harlem’s criminal underworld, and his influence continued to loom large even from his prison cell.
He continued to operate from prison, using his connections and influence to maintain his criminal empire. In 1963, Johnson was released from prison on parole. He died of a heart attack while eating breakfast on July 7, 1968, in Harlem. Historians say that the crime lord passed away from high cholesterol.
Bumpy Johnson’s legacy as a crime boss in Harlem is complex and controversial. While he was undeniably involved in illegal activities and was responsible for the suffering of many, he was also seen as a protector of the African American community in Harlem, providing for those in need and standing up against racial injustice.
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