Bumpy Johnson, Aunt Rita, and Mom

Each of my novels marches forward in time extending the theme of either the direct or after-effects of slavery. I began with Failed Moments, a fictional account of my ancestors, which took place in the 1790s and mid 1800s. My second novel, A Wave From Mama, was set in Brooklyn in the 1880s and the third, Minetta Lane, in downtown Manhattan in the early 1900s. My last novel, Living in the Middle, started in New York in 1915 and ended in Tulsa Oklahoma during the Race Riots of 1921. For the fifth and perhaps final novel in my Slavery and Beyond Series, I’m continuing to move forward in time while also returning to my own family’s roots.   This novel will take place during the 1930s in New York, when my family was caught up with Bumpy Johnson, who provided muscle for Queen Stephanie St. Clair’s numbers racket in Harlem during the period she was at war with the gangster, Dutch Schultz.

My mother grew up in a household where her Aunt Rita was the banker in St. Clair’s numbers (policy) racket. Given Aunt Rita’s close connection with Bumpy Johnson, my mom, who was in her teens, was often asked to babysit his girlfriend’s kids. My mother hated him, but I’m yet to discover the underlying reason for this deep hatred. Johnson became known as a powerful figure during the 30s and his reputation grew with each passing decade. As I considered this topic for my next book, I watched the Laurence Fishburne movie, Hoodlum, which portrayed the Bumpy Johnson of the 30s. The end of that movie was followed by an advertisement for a new television series, Godfather of Harlem, starring Forest Whittaker as an older Bumpy Johnson in the 1960s. Stumbling across both of these films/shows as I considered the subject of my next book served to reinforce my decision.

The dynamics in my family (my mother’s side) in the 1920s and 30s were interesting. My grandfather grew up as a wealthy child and considered himself to be a gentleman. His appearance was Black, but he viewed the world in terms of class, not race, and he was on the top rung of that ladder. He often pointed to the fact that his birth certificate actually contained the label of “gentleman.” Working was beneath him, so he never spent much time in that endeavor. He was known to lock himself in his bedroom for hours at a time where he alternated between reading and bemoaning his fate—my grandfather grew up in Trinidad with wealth and status, but his father (my great-grandfather) lost the family fortune in the late 1910s. My grandfather’s sister, who I called Aunt Rita, was the opposite. She didn’t focus on what could or should have been. She embraced her circumstances, hustled, and found opportunities. By the early 1930s, she was a key figure in St. Clair’s policy (numbers) operation. This illegal income supported the family for years and prompted my grandfather to refer to his sister as a whore. She, in turn, called him a pimp, who was more than happy to live off her ill-gotten gains. Aunt Rita wound up fleeing the country to France with Henry Miro, who was known as the Policy King of Harlem, in the mid-30s. He was arrested upon their return. Luckily, Aunt Rita stayed out of jail.

In the1920s, my family was listed as Black on official census forms and in the 1930s, they were White. It seems as if the classification depended upon who opened the door and took part in the interview. Issues of race, class, and opportunity were prominent themes in my family during the 1930s and I plan to fully explore them in this next book. My process takes almost a year from research to final product. Some of my research will involve interviewing my mom, who at 95+ years-of-age is starting to lose touch with reality. I think if I’m both patient and persistent, she will provide the kind of insight that I won’t be able to find anywhere else. Starting a new book is exciting and I’m looking forward to the process. I’ll keep you updated along the way!