African-American organized crime  

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"Black organized crime is a frequent topic in rap and hip-hop music, particularly in the subgenres of gangsta rap. It has also been a topos in the blaxploitation film genre."--Sholem Stein

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In the 19th and early 20th centuries, African-American organized crime emerged following the large-scale migration of African Americans to major cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and later the West Coast. In many of these newly established communities and neighborhoods, criminal activities such as illegal gambling (such as the numbers racket), speakeasies and bootlegging were seen in the post-World War I and Prohibition eras. Although the majority of these businesses were operated by African Americans, it is unclear to the extent these operations were run independently of the larger criminal organizations of the time.

Colloquially, black West Indian American criminal organizations may occasionally be included under the label of “African-American organized crime”, but they are usually classified as culturally and ethnically separate criminal entities (and in fact often feud with established African-American crime groups).


Prohibition & the Great Depression

During the 1920s and 30s, African American organized crime was centered in New York's Harlem where the numbers racket was largely controlled by Casper Holstein and the "Madam Queen of Policy" Stephanie St. Clair. St. Clair would later testify at the Seabury Investigation that during 1923 to 1928 the NYPD continued to arrest her runners despite making payoffs. However, the Harlem numbers rackets were largely operated by independent policy bankers such as St. Clair before its eventual takeover by mobster Dutch Schultz in the late 1930s.

According to author Nathan Thompson's Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy King's and Numbers Racketeers:

"Policy became the biggest Black-owned business in the world with combined annual sales sometimes reaching the $100 million mark and employing tens-of-thousands of people nationwide. In Bronzeville, Policy was a major catalyst by which the black economy was driven. In 1938 Time magazine reported that Bronzeville was the "Center of U.S. Negro Business", and more than a decade later, Our World magazine reported that "Windy City Negroes have more money, bigger cars and brighter clothes than any other city…. The city which has become famous for the biggest Policy wheels, the largest funerals, the flashiest cars and the prettiest women, has built that reputation on one thing, money". Those attributions, however, were largely due to Policy, a business conceived, owned, and operated by African American men known by many names including "Digit Barons", "Numbers Bankers", "Sportsmen", "Digitarians", and "the 1-2-3-4 Guys"; but more often than not they were called "Policy Kings"."


In the years following the end of the Second World War, African American organized crime grew along with the rise of African American social consciousness and later political, social and economic upward mobility. Many of the major drug traffickers in the United States emerged during the early to mid 1960s, such as Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, Guy Fisher and Frank Lucas, taking advantage of the increasing political strength during the civil rights movement. Previously dependent solely on the political and police protection of New York's Five Families, African American gangsters were more able to negotiate with outside criminal organizations and the Cosa Nostra's control over the ghettos began to wane.

By the early 1970s, the large narcotics empires created by Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas began expanding beyond Harlem as Lucas sought to ultimately control a large scale drug trafficking operation by gaining control of a network from Indochina directly to the streets of ghettos across the country. Other criminal groups started smuggling marijuana and cocaine in cities including New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. as well as in New Jersey, California, Florida and Toronto, Canada. Other groups such as the "Black Mafia in Philadelphia, whose members were also linked to the Nation of Islam, took over the heroin trade and extorted other groups. Later, a younger group paying homage to the Black Mafia named themselves the Junior Black Mafia" and were also heavily involved in drug trafficking, specifically crack-cocaine, during the Mid 1980s to early 1990s.

Meanwhile on the West Coast in Oakland, California, Felix Mitchell and his 69 Mob ran a large scale drugs trafficking operation, generating income of nearly a million dollars in monthly business.

According to a United States Senate sub committee on organized crime {during the 1980s} One of the most sophisticated, corporate-like, structured, organized crime groups outside of the Italian mafia was The Young Boys Inc. (AKA YBI). Founded by a small group of teen-aged friends on Detroit's west side in the mid 1970s. In less than two years YBI took over the majority of southeast Michigan's heroin trade with absolutely no interference from any other crime groups. At its peek YBI sales were an estimated $300,000 a day. The murder of one of the founders, Dwayne Davis (AKA Wonderful Wayne) and a series of federal indictments on 2 of the remaining bosses and 40 of the top lieutenants crippled YBI in 1982. There were a few lieutenants who survived and carried the organization in Detroit and Boston, Massachusetts, through late 1980s until crack cocaine became the drug of choice over heroin.

Most recently, highly structured African American gangs have made headlines for their ability to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal drug profits. At their peak, the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples were reported to generate $100 million in drug revenue[1]. The rise and fall of the Detroit based Black Mafia Family, who made nearly $250 million through their drug trafficking ventures during the late 1990s, have been brought to light after federal investigations.

In popular culture


  • Black organized crime is a frequent topic in rap and hip-hop music, particularly in the subgenres of gangsta rap.
  • In the song Ghetto Qu'ran rapper 50 Cent mentions several drug dealing figures in his neighborhood, including the notorious Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. It is believed that this song led to the murder of Jam Master Jay and the shooting of 50 Cent himself.
  • Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory, leader of the Black Mafia Family, was known to be good friends with Fabolous, Jay-Z, Puff Daddy (Big Meech's bodyguard was Puff Daddy's ex-bodyguard), Young Jeezy, and a number of other high-profile rappers. The BMF organization is largely responsible for giving Young Jeezy "street credibility", which translates to high album sales in the rap world, by showing up in the hundreds to his shows towards the beginning of his career.


Further reading

  • Ianni, Francis A.J. Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1974.
  • Schatzberg, Rufus. Black Organized crime in Harlem, 1920-1930. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.
  • Schatzberg, Rufus and Kelly, Robert J. African American Organized Crime: A Social History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • King, John W. "The Breeding of Contempt: Account of the largest mass murder in Washington, D.C. history. Xlibris Publishing, 2003.


  • Kelly, Robert J. Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-30653-2
  • Thompson, Nathan. Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy King's and Numbers Racketeers. Bronzeville Press, 2003. ISBN 0972487506

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