Who Was Bumpy Johnson, the Man Behind 'Godfather of Harlem'?

By STEPHANIE OFFICER
Copyright (c) 2018 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Oscar Winning actor Forest Whitaker transforms himself into Ellsworth Raymond Johnson, otherwise known as Bumpy Johnson, for his leading role in the new series “Godfather of Harlem.”

The show follows the Harlem gangster as he is released from Alcatraz in 1963 after spending more than a decade behind bars. 

Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1905, getting the nickname Bumpy from a bump on the back of his head. When Johnson was 10, his older brother, Willie, reportedly was accused of killing a white man. 

Afraid of a possible lynch mob and worried about Johnson’s short temper, his parents mortgaged their home to raise money to send Bumpy to Harlem so he could live with relatives.

After moving to New York City, Bumpy eventually came to power working for racket boss Stephanie St. Clair as an enforcer. The pair went to war against several New York crime bosses, including Dutch Schultz.

After Schulz was shot to death, St. Clair laid low and Johnson came into power, ruling Harlem from the 1930s to the 1960s.

He and mob boss Lucky Luciano formed an alliance — Johnson would control Harlem, and Luciano's crew would get a cut of the profits.

Johnson’s reputation was split. He was often referred to as Robin Hood, because he constantly gave to those in need. But while Johnson was notorious for handing out turkeys during the holidays, he was arguably just as renowned for his illegal activities.

"That was interesting to me on a number of levels, because when people are trying to rise up in a community where they feel like they have no options, what are their choices to be able to be successful?” Whitaker told InsideEdition.com.

"I mean he was an entrepreneur, self made boss, a visionary, a leader, and he spoke for many,” rapper Rick Ross told InsideEdition.com at the series' red carpet premiere at New York City’s Apollo Theatre.

Sylvia Rhone, the first black woman to be appointed chairwoman and CEO of a major record label, and current chairwoman and CEO of Epic Records, grew up in Harlem and has fond memories of sneaking out of her home to catch a glimpse of Johnson and his crew.

"I love those guys. I have like a little thing for gangsters," Rhone laughed. "I was much younger than they. I used to leave my little high heels in the stairwell in my building put on my flats, go out and I was ready. I'd sit on the barstool like I was cool," she recalled to InsideEdition.com.

"Bumpy Johnson was a legend. I mean, he cared about...here's the funny thing. Was he a nice guy? Of course. Was he a bad guy? Absolutely. But he had somewhat of a heart for his people," Chazz Palminteri, who plays Joe Bonanno on the show, told InsideEdition.com. 

The series also shines a light on Johnson’s relationships with activists like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Baptist pastor who became the first black person from New York elected to congress.

"Bumpy had surrounded Malcolm with bodyguards to protect him for a period of time. Then Malcolm said, 'I can't do that. I can't be connected to you.' And took those guys away about two weeks before he was killed. So that was really a striking thing," Whitaker said.

Markuann Smith is one of the show's executive producers and has a familial connection to Johnson.

"Bumpy's granddaughter is my godmother. So it took me 18 years to develop this and curate it and just do it the right way,” Smith told InsideEdition.com. 

Margaret Johnson, Smith's godmother, passed away in 2016. Smith said he promised her he would see the project all the way through. "I got 1,000 no's before I got one yes. I tell people you could either chase your pension or your passion. So I decided to chase my passion. And this is where we at right now.”  

Smith said this is a story about the American dream. 

"It's not a glorification of Bumpy Johnson being a gangster. This is the collision of civil rights and the underworld. It's not just a gangster story. You'll see the movements from the LGBTQ movement, to the Black Lives Matter, to the Me Too movements,” Smith told InsideEdition.com.

“All these movements happened in 1963. So, it's not a black gangster story. It's a story about redemption. It's a story about determination," he added.

Johnson would only be out of prison for five years before dying in 1968 after suffering a heart attack at a Harlem restaurant. Johnson was 62 years old. At the time, he was under federal indictment on drug conspiracy charges.

His death happened just months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in April, which touched off race riots around the country. But as much as race relations have changed since the 1960s, one could argue that they have also stayed the same.

“Not much has changed. Less of the big drug dealer, but a lot of the racism that happened during that time is happening now,” Rhone said.

“That's the bad part about this show is that nothing really has changed since the '60s. The only thing that I wanna get back to is the unity. We had more leaders,” the show’s executive music producer Swizz Beatz told InsideEdition.com. "Everybody has the potential to be the next great leader. It just comes with taking the risk, being respected, being honorable.”

"Look. Have we come a long way? Yes. Do we still got a long way to go? Yes. I think it's a process. It's a never ending process,” Palminteri said.

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Copyright (c) 2018 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.