Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

BLACK GANGS OF HARLEM : 1920-1939

A Brief History

Very little is known about organized black gangs that operated in Harlem, New York, during the Prohibition and Depression years. Almost all organized crime in Harlem during that time was run by Italian, Jewish, and Irish gangsters. A few loosely run black crime factions did exist and primarily concentrated on policy and lottery gambling, prostitution and drugs.

These are the true stories of a time, a place and a people who lived during one of our countrys darkest and most socially flamboyant periods. It was the era of the flappers, jazz music, the Harlem Renaissance, bootlegged booze, speakeasies, gin joints, Tammany Hall, and the mob the crooked politicians and gangsters who ruled over it all.

William Bojangles Robinson
William Bojangles Robinson

Americas troops were finally back from the war to end all wars. World War I was over and the country was rejoicing. The Fifth Regiment of New Yorks National Guard proudly marched down Fifth Avenue, the men rhythmically striding in perfect unison to the lilting jazz music from the military band preceding them. Thousands of people lined the way, cheering and waving flags as the troops passed through the city. Everybody was smiling. Everybody was happy and optimistic. Their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were back. The Hell Fighters were home. A uniformed Bill Bojangles Robinson pumped his drum majors baton wildly into the air as he marched in front of Lieutenant Jim Europes all black band, leading the returning warriors back home to Harlem.

Americas returning black soldiers were sure they now would be treated as equals, having bravely proved their worth by serving honorably overseas. More than 200,000 blacks populated Harlem and more were migrating from the cotton fields and sugarcane fields of the South to join those home from the war. The hope was that they all would find better paying work, better housing and equality. It did not take long for them all to realize that America had not changed. The whites only system was still solidly in place, and was steadily growing worse on a daily basis. The only work they found available were low-paying, menial jobs as janitors, servants, bootblacks, cooks, houseboys and baggage handlers; to name a few. These positions hardly paid them enough to live on and much less than any white person was paid for doing the same work. The doors to the good jobs were shut in their faces and they were dared to step out of line, under threat of severe repercussions. A few enterprising people did manage to open some nightclubs, restaurants and taverns that catered to Harlems black population.

Lenox Avenue in Harlem, 1927
Lenox Avenue in Harlem, 1927
  

The housing situation grew worse. Estimates placed more than 5,000 people residing in a single block. Harlem was a severely overcrowded and segregated community, with more than 250,000 citizens crammed into an area 50 blocks long and eight blocks wide. Many of these people had to sleep in shifts. One would return from work to sleep, while another would vacate the bed to go to work. The bed would always remain warm for its next occupant. Many of the Harlemites could barely scrape together enough money to pay rent. This led to what became known as rent parties, which were commonly held on weekends to raise enough money to pay the landlord. If the rent was not paid by Sunday, the tenant would find their belongings thrown out on the streets.

Times were hard for black people, not only in Harlem but throughout the nation. Race riots and labor riots were erupting everywhere. Racism was the rule and malcontent was the order of the day. In the midst of these conflicts, the nation was entering into the throes of Prohibition. On January 20, 1920, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. Harlem establishments that depended on the sale of alcohol were forced out of business, as were others across the nation. These disrupting events marked the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.

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