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‘Harlem Godfather: The rap on my husband Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson’

October 24, 2010

Review by Minister of information JR

One of the most interesting books I have read this year is “Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson” by Mayme Johnson and Karen Quinones Miller. Most of this book is set in Harlem, New York, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I finished this page-turner in a few days while flying back and forth across the country, and it had me not wanting to go to sleep just to see what would happen next.

I enjoyed this book because it made a legendary mythical figure like Bumpy real and put this complex individual in the political context of history. The book features engagements with Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz and Italian Mafia boss Lucky Luciano, as well as with Harlem numbers boss Madame Queen Stephanie St. Clair, just like in the movie “Hoodlum.”

It also includes stories and reflections about Billie Holiday, Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik Shabazz), famous tap dancer and movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and more. It is a book about Harlem’s Black underworld during this period, with gangsters beating, shooting and killing.

It also shows Bumpy in a more personal light, alongside his wife and his children. It includes pressure, love, hate and betrayal. It brings to life the illegal Black lottery known as “the numbers” and the gamblers and hustlers that played and maintained it and other games and ran the streets.

Just to give you a taste of the action in the book, “I went with Bumpy to a Georgia Skin Game at the Theresa Hotel. Skin was Bojangles’ favorite card game just like it was Bumpy’s. It was about 4:30 a.m., and Bojangles was by this time drunk, and mad because he’d lost all his money. ‘I know y’all niggers been cheating me,’ a drunken Bojangles said. ‘And I’ma kill all y’all motherfuckers up in here right now if you don’t give me back my money.’ Then he pulled a pearl-handled gun and shot a couple of bullets into the ceiling.” I would say more but I would rather you read the book.

In another part of the book, “Bumpy had started an affair with Helen Lawrenson, the white editor of Vanity Fair, and was taking her to dinner at the Alhambra Bar and Theatre on 126th Street and Seventh Avenue when Bumpy spotted Rollins. He pulled out a knife and jumped on Rollins, and the two men rolled around on the floor for a few moments before Bumpy stood up and straightened his tie. Rollins remained on the floor, his face and body badly gashed, and one of his eyeballs hanging from the socket by ligaments. Bumpy calmly stepped over the man, picked up a menu and said he suddenly had a taste for spaghetti and meatballs.”

One of my favorite parts in the book is when it describes Bumpy as being a race conscious man in jail and in the streets, even in the face of the Italian Mafia and mob boss Lucky Luciano and Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz. It also talks about Bumpy being bitter with Malcolm X after his assassination because he offered Malcolm protection for free and Malcolm turned it down.

We often hear about the Harlem Renaissance, but we rarely hear about Harlem’s ghetto heroes and sheroes and the lives they lived. Maybe after such Black biographical books as this one and Lil’ D’s “Weight,” our young people will stop trying to emulate white thugs and come to see that no matter where we as Black people come from or what we strive for, we always have to fight this corrupt system as our main adversary.

Email POCC Minister of Information JR, Bay View associate editor, at and visit

6 thoughts on “‘Harlem Godfather: The rap on my husband Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson’

  1. trublak

    I've read alot of biographies of gangsters in all ethnicities and the one lesson that shines through, consistently, is that all gangsters prey on their own communities more than any other. What drove the sons of some Italian immigrants in NYC to join the FBI and specifically Mob task force was growing up watching as their fathers and relatives were bullied, extorted and brutalized for protection money by the mafiosi. Mob capo Joey Gallo helped organize the Italian American anti-defamation league in order to "dispel the myth of that the Italian mob actually exists".!!! All while himself being a capo in one of the NY 5 families. What a great cover to bleed your own people and commit murder, intimidation and extortion. Sound familiar?

    Our community is no different. Those who defend criminal behavior serve the same purpose as the IADL by defending and protecting criminals and gangsters who prey on our own. Bumpy's protege, Frank Lucas, made millions pumping heroin into Harlem, destroying the lives of thousand of black men and women.

  2. The Minister of Info

    @ Trublak You need to read this book. Frank Lucas was not Bumpy's protege, he stole the life of another guy who ultimately betrayed Bumpy. I understand that with capitalism, there always has to be an underclass, and in Amerikkka, Black people are that underclass. Like Tupac said what are those of us in the ghetto supposed to do? Shrivel up and die?

  3. Gordon

    This is history no matter how we view it . Always remember we did not create the society that
    is America .The country was founded with a criminal mindset .Columbus ,who we celebrate as
    the discoverer of this land did not intend to embrace the people who were native .Instead he
    he used them as laborers to steal their wealth. It is the situation a people find themselves in
    that dictates how they evolve . A gangster becomes a gangster because he's confronted by
    gangs .If you are not allowed to earn like others you take. I do not condone many of the ways
    in which these individuals preyed on their own . I do, however understand how they came to
    be victimizers in an already corrupt system. I choose to study men who rise to the top of any
    level of society .They are, in their own way ,unique.

  4. Monique English

    a criminal is a criminal regardless of their ethnic background. Evil is evil regardless of the color of your skin. The mafia and the black mafia and any other criminal enterprise is ruthless and unapologetic towards their intended targets. I don't care what background you come from evil exists because of the fall of our first parents Adam and Eve. Since then the human race has been on a downward spiral. Once we get past the color code of criminal activity and just accept evil for what its…we as human race will always be plaugued with this silly nonesense of who was a better gangster.

  5. Juanita

    I feel people need to stop blaming to drug dealers, they didn’t put a gun to your head
    And tell you to take drugs


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