Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

BLACK GANGS OF HARLEM : 1920-1939

The Roaring Twenties

When Harlem Was in Vogue
When Harlem Was in Vogue
 

Alcohol was part of Americas culture and its people did not want to stop drinking. Prohibition forced open the countrys doors to the most ruthlessly resourceful and crooked entrepreneurs The Mob. Realizing there was a demand for alcohol, organized crime factions began making their own beer and liquor (booze, bathtub gin). Many oversaw the transportation of illegal liquor from across the Canadian border. Such operations became known as rum running. The gangsters knew that Harlem represented easy money as an outlet for the sale of their booze. Taking advantage of some of Harlems floundering businesses, members of organized crime quickly moved in through the use of intimidation and force. Black business owners never had a chance.  

Jack Johnson, boxer
Jack Johnson, boxer
 

Jack Johnson, a black man and Heavyweight Champion of the World, owned a nightclub named Club Deluxe. In 1922, Johnson became one of the first to have to sell out. Owney Madden was a mobster who had the support of the Chicago crime bosses. Madden opened Johnsons former place a year later as a whites only nightclub and renamed it The Cotton Club. In his book When Harlem Was in Vogue, David Levering Lewis called it Harlems gaudiest and best-known nightspot. Many other nightspots were opened, serving Vaudevillian-style black entertainment to the white patrons that flooded into Harlem from downtown Manhattan. Everybody was swinging and boozing. They were high times and they were really hopping. Alcohol sales and consumption climbed rapidly. Nightclubs cabarets and after-hours clubs (hotspots, hooch joints and speakeasies), on the strip of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, thrived with the influx of white trade. Jazz, big bands, blues, and high-steppin, high-yeller girls set the tone. Money flowed in like water and the Mobs power grew. In the midst of all that was occurring, black artists, intellectuals and social activists flourished throughout Harlem in what is now called The Harlem Renaissance.

The Cotton Club, outside
The Cotton Club, outside
 

Most Harlemites benefited very little from all that went on. They were given the menial jobs of waiters, doormen, cleaning crews, dishwashers and washroom attendants; the only positions made available to them. Only a few were able to make more money by performing as musicians and dancers for the white audiences. Still, the standing rule was that they were to only enter and exit all white only establishments through the rear entrances. It made no difference how famous the black performers were, how well-off they may have been, and what white connections they had. No black person was allowed in these clubs as a patron. This policy was very strictly enforced by the mob and their musclemen, even for racially mixed crowds. The black people in Harlem knew something needed to be done for them to be able to survive.

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