Bumpy Johnson: Harlem’s Legendary Crime Boss and Influencer

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It was seldom for Black people to ascend to power during the segregation era. Yet, Bumpy Johnson defied the odds and achieved just that.

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From the 1950s to the 1960s, he stood as Harlem’s most influential figure in New York City. Despite numerous arrests, Bumpy invariably returned to the streets.

Let’s delve into the life of the Godfather of Harlem.

Who Was Bumpy Johnson?

Bumpy Johnson, born Ellsworth Raymond Johnson on October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina, was one of seven siblings to parents Margaret Moultrie and William Johnson. His distinctive nickname ‘Bumpy’ originated from a slight abnormality on his skull, which remained with him.

Charleston was a rare sanctuary for Black individuals during that era, though that doesn’t say much given the harsh realities faced by African Americans in the early 1900s.

At the tender age of 10, Bumpy’s brother William was wrongfully accused of killing a white man. To escape the likely fate of lynching—a common threat for Blacks accused of crimes against whites—the family relocated to Harlem, bringing most of their children.

The Great Migration saw approximately 175,000 Black people move to Harlem, establishing it as the world’s largest African American enclave. Here, Bumpy lived with his sister.

Despite being surrounded by familiar faces, Bumpy was distinct with his bumpy head and thick Southern accent, which made him the target of local children’s ridicule.

However, Bumpy didn’t just endure the mockery; he fought back. He quickly cultivated a reputation as a tough kid, a persona that later paved his way into the criminal underworld.

A Life of Hustle

Initially, Bumpy embarked on modest, legitimate work like selling newspapers and cleaning storefronts. These jobs led him to new acquaintances—members of gangs. Bumpy soon began hustling money through playing pool.

While working on storefronts, Bumpy encountered William “Bub” Hewlett, a notorious gangster who respected no one except his mob bosses. A confrontation over a territory dispute with Hewlett proved pivotal; Hewlett admired Bumpy’s courage to stand his ground.

Hewlett eventually recruited Bumpy into his operations, offering protection to high-profile mob bosses. Over time, Bumpy emerged as a coveted bodyguard in Harlem. His ventures expanded to include armed robbery, extortion, and pimping.

In his twenties, Bumpy’s criminal career flourished, though he frequently found himself behind bars. His longest sentence to that point came after a grand larceny conviction, landing him in prison for over two years. Released in 1932, Bumpy was left penniless and without a gang.

He soon met the numbers queen, Madam Stephanie St. Clair.

Working With the Queen

Known by many titles including the Queen and Queen of the Policy Rackets, Madam St. Clair had established herself as a formidable leader in Harlem’s numbers games.

As her influence grew, so did her list of enemies. To safeguard her position, St. Clair enlisted Bumpy as her lieutenant. Their relationship extended beyond the professional; they quickly became close allies.

Bumpy not only protected St. Clair but also ran errands and managed bookmaking for her. His loyalty was unwavering; when Dutch Schultz, a bootlegging mogul, targeted St. Clair’s operations during the waning days of Prohibition, Bumpy did not hesitate to eliminate threats.

The feud between St. Clair and Schultz resulted in a bloody conflict in Harlem, with at least 40 casualties as both factions vied for control over the lucrative numbers rackets.

“Bumpy and his team of nine waged a sort of guerrilla war, effortlessly targeting Schultz’s men, who were noticeably out of place in Harlem by day,” wrote Mayme Johnson, Bumpy’s wife, in her biography, Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. Meanwhile, Bumpy’s gang seamlessly blended into the neighborhood.

Three years post-rivalry, the dynamic between St. Clair and Bumpy shifted. By then, Bumpy had ascended to the role of a crime boss, and the title Godfather of Harlem began to circulate.

The Birth of the Godfather of Harlem

As he embraced his new status, Bumpy also ensured he looked the part. His affair with Helen Lawrenson, a writer and Vanity Fair editor, led to custom suits and luxurious shirts and ties from Sulka, enhancing his gangster image.

Unlike St. Clair, Bumpy was open to collaborating with other crime leaders. His dealings with Lucky Luciano, one of the most infamous mob bosses in the U.S., were strategic. After Luciano dealt with Schultz, Bumpy gained significant control over Harlem’s bookmakers. To keep Luciano at bay, Bumpy agreed to share his profits.

Bumpy and Luciano were often seen playing chess in public.

As Mayme documented in her book: “It wasn’t a perfect solution, and not everyone was content, but the people of Harlem recognized that Bumpy had ended the conflict with no further casualties, and had negotiated peace with dignity… And they acknowledged that for the first time, a Black man had confronted the white mob rather than just yielding and conforming.”

Anyone aspiring to establish anything in Harlem needed Bumpy’s approval. From bar owners to criminals, all had to pay homage to the Godfather. Those who dared disrespect Bumpy often paid with their lives.

One of Bumpy’s primary enterprises was heroin trafficking. Although accustomed to short stints in prison, his involvement in heroin led to his longest sentence yet: 15 years at the notorious Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary starting in 1952. He was released in 1963.

Despite his incarceration, Bumpy continued to dominate Harlem’s criminal scene. Yet, upon his release, he returned to a much-changed neighborhood.

The Soft Side of Bumpy Johnson

Bumpy was often likened to Harlem’s Robin Hood. While he was one of New York’s leading crime figures in the 1950s, he also showed a generous heart, according to various accounts.

The Godfather frequently used his wealth to support impoverished communities. He provided food and gifts to his needy neighbors and was known for his lavish turkey dinners during Thanksgiving. His annual Christmas parties were legendary.

When engaging with young people, Bumpy consistently urged them to pursue their education and steer clear of criminal paths.

Upon his release from Alcatraz in 1963, Bumpy was welcomed with a parade. He also maintained a close bond with Malcolm X, offering the human rights activist his protection. However, Malcolm X declined, concerned about the optics of accepting help from a known drug lord.

Bumpy also had a passion for poetry, publishing several of his works in Harlem magazines.

Fresh out of prison in 1948, Bumpy entered a diner where Mayme Johnson was dining. They struck up a conversation, and six months later, they were married. They had two children together.

Despite a life marked by danger, it was his health that ultimately failed him. On July 7, 1968, just after midnight, Bumpy was dining at Wells Restaurant in Harlem. He ordered a chicken leg, some grits, and a cup of coffee.

Before he could finish his meal, he was seen clutching his heart, appearing to choke. Coroners later determined that congestive heart failure was the cause of his death. He was 62.

Bumpy Johnson in Film and Television

Bumpy’s remarkable life has captivated Hollywood, inspiring numerous film and television portrayals. Here are some of the notable projects and actors who have depicted Bumpy:

Moses Gunn in Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score! (1973) Paul Benjamin in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) Laurence Fishburne in The Cotton Club (1984) and Hoodlum (1997) Clarence Williams III in American Gangster (2007) Forest Whitaker in Godfather of Harlem (2019-2023) Conclusion In his 62 years, Bumpy Johnson was arrested 40 times and frequently oscillated between freedom and imprisonment. He rose from a mere numbers runner to a commanding mob boss in Harlem’s underworl

Bumpy was among the few African Americans who wielded power in the 1950s. Despite his criminal endeavors, he consistently looked out for his fellow Black residents in Harlem.

From a young outcast with a fiery temper to a reigning crime lord who wasn’t shy about showing his softer side through poetry, Bumpy certainly experienced a tumultuous journey.

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