THE BLACKS WERE ON THE STAGE.
THE WHITES WERE AT THE TABLES.
THE MOBSTERS WERE BEHIND THE SCENES.
AND SOMEHOW THE MAGIC TOUCHED THEM ALL – Jim Haskins – “The Cotton Club.”
In the 1890’s, Harlem was the land speculator’s dream. The elevated railroad lines that had been extended to 129th Street in Manhattan, had transformed the area from the hinterlands to what was called “The Great Migration.”
At the time, black families lived mostly in the area between Thirty-Seventh Streets and Fifty-Eight Streets, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The upper crust of society viewed Harlem as the next step for the upwardly mobile, and as a result, splendorous townhouses costing thousands more than comparables downtown, were being built as fast as the Harlem land could be purchased by the land speculators.
By 1905, the bottom of the Harlem real estate market fell though the floor. The land speculators were forced to face the fact that the townhouse had been built too quick, and that the prices were far above what the people were prepared to pay for them.
On the verge of bankruptcy, the land speculators used tactics that today would be illegal. They decided to rent their buildings to black tenants, far above what they would charge white tenants. Then, in a frenzy to recapture their losses, the land speculators approached white building owners and told them if they didn’t purchase vacant buildings they would rent them out exclusively to blacks, thereby reducing the value of the white landowner’s properties. The white landowners didn’t bite, so the land speculators made good on their promises. Whites began moving out of Harlem in droves, replaced by black families who had never lived in such a fine neighborhood before. Black churches followed their congregations from the slums of Manhattan to the splendor of Harlem, and by the early 1920’s, Harlem was the largest black community in the United States.
However, most blacks could not afford the high rents charged by the white building owners, so they took in tenants, causing two and sometimes three families to live in a one, or two-bedroom apartment. Coinciding with the overcrowding of Harlem, came the influx of illegal enterprises, such as numbers runners, houses of prostitution, and drug dealers. This was counteracted somewhat when prosperous blacks, mostly in the entertainment business, decided Harlem was where they could showcase their talents in a neighborhood filled with people of their own race. Fritz Pollard, noted All-American football player, who made his money in the real estate, moved to Harlem, as did fellow All-America football player Paul Robeson — destined to hone an outstanding career acting and singing on stage. They were quickly followed by famous singers like Ethel Walters and Florance Mills, and Harlem was ready for a renaissance equal to that of the glowing White Way on Broadway.
However, when there was money to be made, white gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Owney “The Killer” Madden were ready to jump in and take the profits, by force if necessary, which is the way they did business anyway. Schultz muscled his way into the Harlem numbers business, chasing out such black notables as Madam Stephanie St. Claire and Caspar Holstein. And during the height of Prohibition, Madden had his eyes on the perfect place to sell his bootleg booze: The Club Deluxe on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue.
The Club Deluxe was owned by former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Whereas, Johnson was proficient with his fists, Madden and his formidable crew were good with guns, knives, and bats. A few choice words, backed with the threat of violence, with few meager bucks thrown in, and Johnson handed over Club Deluxe to Madden and his partner/manager George “Big Frenchy” DeMange. The two gangsters renamed it The Cotton Club.
Not to totally insult a black man with the prestige of Johnson, Madden threw Johnson a bone, and let him hang around the joint, resplendent in a tuxedo. Johnson would smile and tell everyone who asked that he was the assistant manager under DeMange.
To understand why such a great heavyweight boxer like Johnson would cower before Madden, who was barely five-foot-five-inches and 140 pounds after a huge dinner, one would have to be made aware of Madden’s background.
Owen “Owney” Madden was born at 25 Somerset Street, in Leeds, England, on December 18, 1891. In need of work, his father moved the Madden family to Liverpool. In 1903, when young Madden was only 12, his father died, and his mother re-located her family to Vclub America, settling on the West Side of Manhattan, in a neighborhood called “Hells Kitchen.”
Madden fell in with a boisterous gang known as the Gophers. He became proficient in the favored crimes of the era: robberies, muggings, and labor racket beatings. In order to hurt and intimidate, Madden’s favorite weapon was a lead pipe, wrapped in newspaper.
Madden made a ton of money in a racket called the “insurance business.” As the president of his own “insurance company,” Madden would visit the local establishments and tell the business owners that the owner needed “bomb insurance,” in case foreigners, or maybe even Madden himself, decided to bomb the businessman’s store. The business owners caught wind quick, and paid Madden what he demanded. If they didn’t pay Madden, that’s businessman’s stores would go up in flames and debris in a matter of days, and sometimes even hours. While Madden was a member of the Gophers, and making tons of money in his “insurance business,” he was arrested 44 times, but not once did he ever go to prison.
When Madden was 17, he earned his nickname “The Killer.” A poor Italian immigrant did nothing wrong, except cross paths with Madden on a street in Hell’s Kitchen. In front of a crowd of his fellow Gophers, and whomever else was standing on the street that day, Madden pulled out a gun and shot the Italian dead. Then Madden stood over the dead body and announced to the assembled crowd, “I’m Owney Madden!”
By the time he was 23, Madden had at least five other murders to his credit. Hence the nickname – “The Killer.”
However, Madden thought he was bulletproof, until November 6th, 1912, at the Arbor Dance Hall, which was in the heart of the territory controlled by the Gopher’s rivals: the Hudson Dusters. Madden strolled into the hall by himself, like he had nary a care in the world, during a dance given by the Dave Hyson Association. Madden was watching the proceedings from the balcony, when eleven Hudson Dusters surrounded him and shot Madden six times. Madden was rushed to the hospital, where a detective asked Madden who had shot him.