Harlem Godfather- Mayme Johnson on Bumpy Johnson

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 10 years ago '06        #1
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Harlem Godfather- Mayme Johnson on Bumpy Johnson
 

 
Well I didn't know where the hell to post this soo I figured I'd post it here for discussion.


It wasn’t unusual for a gunshot victim to be wheeled into the operating room of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem in 1952. Especially in the wee hours of the morning when club hoppers with too much to drink took their nine-to-five frustrations out on whoever was available.

But this was no usual gunshot victim. This was my husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson.

The man who, according to legend, almost single-handedly fought the infamous Jewish hoodlum Dutch Schultz when that notorious madman tried to take over the Harlem numbers rackets. The man who was as well-known for his charity to children as for his deadly temper when he was crossed by other gangsters. The man who was the undisputed King of the Harlem Underworld. The man to whom I’d been married only three years. And from the looks of things, the 45-year-old man who was about to take his last breath.

“Bumpy,” Detective Philip Klieger yelled as he trotted alongside the gurney towing the bloodied half-conscious man, “You know you’re not going to make it. Tell me who shot you so we can bring him to justice.”

But see, my husband lived by the gangster code. Bumpy opened his eyes and momentarily focused on the detective, and his slackened lips curled into a snarl. “A man can only die once, and dead men make no excuses,” he managed to get out before falling into full unconsciousness.

“Lord,” screamed a heavily-painted woman with a crimson red dress two sizes too tight and about six inches too short. “That boy done k!lled Bumpy.”

‘That boy, ’ I found out later, was 31-year-old Everett Loving; also known as Robert “Hawk” Hawkins, a brash young gambler from Ashville, North Carolina who fancied himself a pimp, and was considered simply a joke by the Harlem hustlers.

“The kid was nothing but a punk,” legendary card shark Finley Hoskins would say later. “No one ever paid him no mind. No one ever had no reason to.”

But in June 1952 the tall dark-skinned Hawk was determined to make someone take himself seriously. He desperately wanted to be accepted by the Harlem hustlers whose number he so urgently wanted to join. He wanted to impress them. He needed to make a name for himself.

For those of you who don’t know, New York bars and clubs are open until 4 a.m., but for serious partiers, that’s still way too early to go home. These folks would then head for the illegally run After-Hour joints. True, there were some joints that you had to knock on the door and say “Joe, sent me,” or give some kind of password, but many others operated in plain view. As long as the owners made their weekly donations to the police no one bothered them. The Vets Club, which was located at 122nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, was owned by John Levy – the abusive boyfriend/manager of jazz great Billie Holiday, and Vincent Nelson – one of the most successful pimps in Harlem. By 3 a.m. the joint would be jumping and the folks would be stomping. There was always a good time and a good crowd at The Vets.

On this particular night jazz great Sarah Vaughn was there sipping champagne, along with the Brown Twins, a popular jazz duo. The gorgeous vamp Margherite Chapman, who would later marry baseball slugger Willie Mays (she was a lot older than him, but she lied to him about her age.) was there also, along with a couple of black Hollywood starlets who wished they looked as good as Margherite, and R&B diva Dinah Washington was holding court to her usual entourage of ten or twelve.

It was about 5:30 a.m. when the already half-drunk, Hawk sauntered over to the bar and ordered a scotch, then proceeded to loudly talk about his take for the night – the trick money his “bi*ches” had turned over to him after a night of whoring.

“Man, why don’t you cool out? Can’t you see there’s ladies in here? Show some respect,” Bumpy said irritably as he clinked the ice in his watered down glass of ginger ale. As bad as Bumpy was, he didn’t smoke or drink, and he didn’t like men cursing around women they didn’t know.

To be honest, I don’t believe Hawk even looked up to see that it was Bumpy, because he would have been stupid to say what he said next. “zzzzzz, who the fu*k is you to tell me to cool out?” he yelled in his heavy southern accent.

Bumpy looked him up and down and then said quietly, “I’m about to be your worst nightmare. Now carry your behind outta here before someone has to carry you out.”

This time Hawk did look up before saying anything else, and that’s when he realized who it was he’d been addressing. Intoxicated, but not stupid, Hawk turned to leave but stumbled over a chair on the way out. Someone snickered and Hawk angrily whirled around to say something, but Bumpy looked at him with an icy stare and said, “You still here?”

Ego bruised, Hawk left. Bumpy bought a round a drink for the ladies as an apology for the rudeness for the younger man, and the merriment continued as it had been before the intrusion.

An hour later most of the party-goers were gone, and my husband was standing at the bar talking to the bartender, and the club owners John Levy and Vincent Nelson when he suddenly felt a nudge on his shoulder and turned around. Hawk, had topped off the scotch he’d already imbibed with cheap wine, and armed with liquid courage and a borrowed revolver he had come back to seek his revenge.

“What you got to say now, zzzzzz?” he screamed as he shakily pointed the gun at Bumpy’s head. “You so fu*king bad, what you gotta say now?”

Bumpy was out on bail and carried no knife or gun, and because he was backed up against the bar, there was no way he could escape.

“Man, why don’t you go home and sleep it off?” Bumpy said calmly as he stretched his hand out behind him, hoping to grasp something on the bar that he could use as a weapon. “You were wrong and you got called out on it. It’s over now.”

2 comments for "Harlem Godfather- Mayme Johnson on Bumpy Johnson"

 10 years ago '06        #2
93G4Life  OP
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“Ain’t sh*t over,” Hawk yelled as he stepped back and tightened his finger on the trigger to take his shot. But just then Bumpy managed to grab a potted plant and smashed it into the side of Hawk’s face. It was enough to throw off Hawk’s aim, and the bullet meant for Bumpy’s head slammed into the right side of his chest instead. Bumpy slumped to the floor – eyes closed -- and for a moment Hawk stood over him as if just realizing what he’d done. But when Bumpy reopened his eyes, and Hawk realized he was still alive, Hawk flew out the door.

“Bumpy, are you alright?” the bartender asked as he, Vince, and Levy rushed over to the fallen man.

“I’m fine,” Bumpy said in a weak and shaky voice. “Just help me to my feet.”

Levy and the bartender half-carried Bumpy to Vince’s car, and they sped off to Sydenham Hospital on 124th Street and Manhattan Avenue. .

As Vince helped Bumpy up the stairs another gambler and pimp, Gershwin Miles, called from across the street. “Bumpy is that you? You alright, man?”

“Naw, man. I’ve been shot,” Bumpy managed to yell back to his friend.

No lie, it seemed like all of Harlem must have been listening because within ten minutes the hospital was filled with people trying to see what had happened to Bumpy.

I was home asleep when Vincent called me to tell me what happened. I almost had a heart attack right there in bed when he said, “Mayme, you’d better hurry. The doctors aren’t sure he’s going to make it.”

Bumpy and I had only been married three years, and while I knew there was always a chance he’d get hurt in his line of work, somehow it never occurred to me that he might be k!lled and I would be a widow. Call me naïve. I wanted to break down in tears, but I didn’t have time. My man was in trouble, and I had to get to him as soon as possible – I couldn’t waste any time going into hysterics. We were living at 2 West 120th Street on the third floor at the time, and Walter Clark – who owned the then famous but now defunct Uncle Walter’s Sausage – lived on the sixth floor. I hurriedly called his wife, Willa Mae, and asked her to rush downstairs to take care of Bumpy’s 2-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, then I got dressed up and was downstairs in less than five minutes. I hadn’t thought about how I would get to the hospital, but I needn’t have worried, Vince was already outside the building in his long black Cadillac. He must have sped through every single red light to make it there that fast. I hopped in the car, and it seemed it was only a few minutes later that we were at Sydenham Hospital.

We pulled up in front of the hospital and I believe I actually jumped out the car before Vince even had a chance to put in park. As I ran up the steps I heard someone call out, “Mayme! Let him know I’m here but I can’t come in.” I looked around and saw George Iser peeking out from the bushes. “There’s cops in there and I still got warrants on me,” he explained, “But I just wanna make sure Bumpy’s okay. Let him know I’m out here.”

I quickly nodded before walking into the hospital. The lobby was packed with people; it seemed like hundreds of people. There were people there in their night clubbing clothes, men there with pants pulled on over their pajamas, women with coats thrown over their nightgowns, and detectives, doctors and nurses all over the place. It was just ridiculous. I actually had to push my way in.

Hoss Steele, Junie Byrd, Nat Pettigrew, Finley Hoskins, John Levy and Georgie Rose – all of whom had known Bumpy from when he first moved to Harlem as a teenager – were already there. Nat gave a yell when he saw me, and he and Vince shoved people out the way to get me to the doctor so I could sign the papers for them to operate. It was only then that I saw Bumpy, as they were wheeling him into the operating room. There were two detectives running alongside the gurney, and I had to push them aside to get to my husband. I almost fainted when I looked at him – his beautiful chocolate complexion was an ashen gray, and his beautiful almond-shaped brown eyes were glazed, and only half-open. I fought back a sob as I reached for his hand and gave a reassuring squeeze. To my delight he was able to give a weak squeeze back in return. It restrengthened me.

“Will you get the hell out of here?” I screamed at the detectives who now had the nerve to try and push me out the way to continue questioning Bumpy.

“You heard, Mrs. Johnson,” I heard a voice behind me say. “Please get out the way so we can get this man into the operating room.” I turned around and saw Dr. Harold Wardrow, a well-known black surgeon, standing there with a scowl on his face.
 10 years ago '06        #3
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The operation took six hours, and when it was over Dr. Wardrow came over and told me, “Mrs. Johnson. Had the bullet been one one-tenth of an inch to the left it would have pierced his heart and we wouldn’t be here speaking now because your husband would be dead. And to be honest, we’ve done all we can, but it’ll still be touch and go for the next few days. I suggest that you pray for your husband’s survival.”

I immediately sunk to my knees there in the hospital waiting room, clasped my hands together, and looked up toward heaven.

“Dear Lord,” I said. “I know that my husband hasn’t always been the most upright citizen, but he’s always been an upright man. And I love him very much, Dear Lord. Please don’t take Bumpy away from me.”

I stayed on my knees for another fifteen minutes sending up prayer after prayer. When I got up and turned to face Hoss Steele, Nat Pettigrew, Junie Byrd, Vince Nelson, John Levy, Ricky Williams and George Rose I was surprised and touched to see tears in their eyes – these men were considered to be some of the toughest men in Harlem, and they were on the verge of breaking down with emotion. Suddenly Ricky cleared his throat and spoke. “Look, the doctors done all they could, and Mayme got the God thing in hand, let’s go get out in the street and k!ll that punk motherfu*ka Hawk.”

Without another word they all walked out the hospital and got in their cars and sped off.

We found out later that once he ran out the Vets Club he got car and drove to Albany, New York and hid out there before finally high-tailing it back to North Carolina.

Bumpy’s operation was on Monday, but by the time the Amsterdam News – a well-known African-American newspaper in New York which still operates today – hit the stands on Thursday, he was still in a coma. Their headlines screamed “Bumpy Johnson Near death After Being Shot During After Hours Spot Brawl.”

The nuns at the Sisters of Handmaid of Mary lit candles and prayed for his recovery. Harlem luminaries called the hospital every hour to check on his prognosis. And Harlem sporting men and women gathered together in their familiar haunts while they awaited word on the condition of their unofficial leader.



. . . thank the Lord, Bumpy finally opened his eyes five days after the operation. I was there asleep in his room when I heard him kind of grunting. I slowly got up and stood over his bed. He opened his eyes, and it looked as if he were having a hard time focusing for a moment, but when he saw me looking down at him he gave a weak smile, then started humming “It Had to Be You.” I began crying, and just started hugging him so hard the nurses had to rush in and pry me loose.

The next few days were a blur of activity. There were so many people coming in to visit Bumpy, and his room was always full of flowers. Nurses were doing their best to work on the floor Bumpy was on, because they all wanted to be around him. He was a real charmer, and he turned on his charm with the nurses in the same way he would turn it on with the Black entertainers whom liked to hang out with him. The nurses would stop by his room whenever they got a chance, just to talk. He would ask about how their children were doing in school, or how their parents were making out, and he’d actually listened to the answers. Bumpy was talented that way. When he was talking to you he really gave the impression he really cared. And of course the nurses loved working on Bumpy’s floor because they got to meet all of these famous people they’d only heard or read about before. People like Billy Daniels, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Joe Louis all stopped by. Even better were the tips that they received from some of the white visitors from the East Side of Harlem.

“Hey, you make sure you take good care of our pal,” the smiling white men would say in their thick New York Italian accents as they slipped $50 and $100 bills into their hands. “Get him back on his feet soon.”

The nurses would whisper to each other, “It sure is something – those eye-talians coming out to see Bumpy, but it just shows how important he is. Those are Mafia people you know.”

If Bumpy was respected by Harlemites for taking on Schultz, he was just as respected for his relationship with the Italian mobsters who had taken over part of Schultz’s operations after his death in 1935. There are some people who now scoff and say that Bumpy was a low-level hood, and none of the Mafia bigwigs would have anything to do with him, but it’s a fact that mob boss Lucky Luciano sent me a hand carved antique chess just two years before his fatal heart attack in 1962.

And when Albert Anastasia was gunned down in a Manhattan barbershop in 1957 police searching the notorious Mafioso’s apartment found Bumpy Johnson’s home telephone number among Anastasia’s papers. Bumpy was in prison at the time, but the FBI came knocking on my door on 120th Street, asking what Anastasia was doing with our number. I was scared, but I just told them I didn’t know.

There’s no doubt it, the Italian mob respected Bumpy Johnson and everything they did in Harlem was cleared by Bumpy. Even if they wanted to rub out an informer or teach someone a lesson, Bumpy had to be notified, and have the opportunity to pick up the hit contract himself if he so chose. Bumpy was the only Negro who dealt with the Italian mob as if he were their equal.

“I can remember one time I was at Harris’s Bar on the corner of 132nd Street and 7th Avenue, and two Italian guys came and dragged one of the colored fellas out,” William “Pop” Gates, the late basketball legend and NBA Hall of Famer, told me shortly after Bumpy’s death. “There was a bunch of us in the bar when it happened, but there weren’t one of us made a move to the help the guy because we knew that was the Mafia, and we weren’t getting mixed up in that.”

One of the men in the bar ran next door to Wells Restaurant, one of Bumpy’s hang-outs to tell him what happened, and not finding him there, telephoned our house.

“Personally, I didn’t see the sense in it because everyone knew if the Italians took someone for a ride he wasn’t going to be seen alive again,” said Pop, who was coaching the Harlem Globetrotters at the time. “But a few minutes later Bumpy came to the bar, and started asking people what went down.”

After gathering as much information as he could, Bumpy jumped into his black Cadillac and sped away. An hour later the formerly kidnapped man walked back in the bar, a smiling free man.

“We were shocked. You have to understand this was quite a remarkable feat,” said Pop. “We all knew that Bumpy had connections with the Italians, but I don’t think anyone thought he would be able to pull something like that off. I mean, that guy had messed up with the mob, and Bumpy was able to get him off. It was quite remarkable.”

But then Bumpy was quite remarkable.



From the upcoming book Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (copyright 2007 - Mayme Johnson)



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