Mayme Johnson: Bumpy Johnson’s Wife Straightens The Facts

America loves the outlaw. We romanticize and fantasize about them.  Recently, the movie American Gangster has brought to light the tale of Frank Lucas and in telling his story, we have been exposed to many layers of peripheral tales of connected lives.  One such life is Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson.  Depicted as Lucas’ mentor, the exploits […]

America loves the outlaw. We romanticize and fantasize about them.  Recently, the movie American Gangster has brought to light the tale of Frank Lucas and in telling his story, we have been exposed to many layers of peripheral tales of connected lives.  One such life is Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson.  Depicted as Lucas’ mentor, the exploits of Johnson, once chronicled by Lawrence Fishburne in the movie Hoodlum have returned to our attention.Although he’s been gone since 1968, Johnson left behind a valuable piece of his legacy: his still alive and kicking wife, Mayme Johnson, who vehemently defends his legacy, and takes issue with his depiction in American Gangster, particularly his relationship to Lucas. Johnson, along with author Karen E. Quinones, has written a biography, Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, about her late husband which will be released in February 2008. Walk with us as we discuss Bumpy, Frank Lucas, and Harlem. American Gangster has been out for a few weeks and from all accounts it’s a good movie, but there are rumblings that it may not be entirely true, especially with regards to Frank’s relationship with your husband. Can you elaborate on that?Mayme Johnson: Yes. That is so true. Frank Lucas was never accepted in Bumpy’s circle and to me it’s just based on a lot of lies, from what I’ve seen on BET and movie trailers. I also saw on BET where he’s referencing brownstones and things of that nature but I know that you guys didn’t live in a brownstone.Mayme Johnson: No. No. No we didn’t. Frank Lucas’ entire interaction with Bumpy in that movie is based on lies. We did not live in a brownstone and Frank Lucas did not live with us. Frank Lucas never spent one night in my house, and we did not live at 121st Street. We lived on 120th. And Frank Lucas, from what I read, was out of the country in 1968 and Bumpy did not die at his Well I know he died at Dr. Wells’ restaurant. Mayme Johnson: He sure did! And it was Junie Byrd that came and got me. I was in the house and he had just left me and we had watched the Lawrence Welk Show that night and he decided to ride out with Junie Byrd and that’s where he died, well that’s where he had his heart attack. He died on his way to Harlem Right on 135th Street.Mayme Johnson: That’s right. I don’t know where Frank Lucas was. He was not at the wake; he was not at the funeral. I don’t know where he was but he was not there. Maybe he dreamed it. Well I know Bumpy did a few stints in a penitentiary and that kind of eliminates the possibility of Frank being his driver for 15 years because I don’t know if there was a stretch where he was out 15 years. Mayme Johnson: Not at one time. No. He was not out and when he came out in ’63 he only lived 5 years. Frank Lucas was never his driver. Never. Bumpy drove for himself. The only person that used to drive a little bit and that was back in the [19]30’s…that was Freddy Parson and JJ. JJ used to drive a little for him but Bumpy drove himself to the racetrack. I went with him a couple times and he certainly did all the driving. I think Frank drove him only two times and somebody threw a brick in the car then. He was in the car the day somebody threw a brick or something at the car and it hit the windshield. But he was never Bumpy’s driver. Especially no 15-year stretch. The real relationship between Bumpy and Frank was basically Frank was just a person that would hold Bumpy’s coat and follow him around and just…very distant, very poor. He had no real relationship with Bumpy. Bumpy had friends like Nat Petigrew, Junie Byrd, Sonny Chance, the Capuzza Brothers and all them people like that. Frank Lucas did not fit into that circle. He was never invited to the house. And we entertained a lot and had dinners and things for different people and he was never invited. I don’t even know if Junie Byrd knew him. Now in regards to Harlem, they are moving some of the old-timers out. How do you feel about that? Mayme Johnson: Well Harlem is nothing like it was. When Bumpy was alive, it was nothing to me if I wanted to go out to a movie and come home two in the morning, but I wouldn’t do that now.  To me it’s different. So you feel he kept a kind of order to the streets, to the community?Mayme Johnson: Oh yes, I don’t think the streets would have so much drugs and so much crime going on. I think Bumpy would really clear all that up. He was a peaceful person. If he knew something was wrong, he would go and try to straighten it out. Like even during the riots, he tried to calm the people down. So I think it would be much different if Bumpy and Junie Byrd was alive. Especially Their activities were illegal in nature but do you think it was different mechanics to it as far as keeping people in line? Mayme Johnson: Yes I think it was different. Well they kept order in Harlem but nothing like it is now. Now you can’t even go out to the bank. You got to have somebody to walk with you. Just the other day going to the bank this guy almost knocked me down. He was running because he’d just snatched some woman’s purse. During the time Bumpy was there, he could just walk through the street and things just would look a little better and it would be less crime if Bumpy was alive. I’m sure of that. If you could pick out one thing that you just absolutely loved about your husband, what would that be?Mayme Johnson: Everything. He was a man. He was respected everywhere he went. When we would walk into a restaurant, a fancy restaurant on 125th street, people would stand up and greet us. We had a good time together. I loved everything he did. Nothing that he did that I did not love. I had a great guy. And I’d do it again if I had to do it. I’d do the same thing all over again. I’m just sorry that he had to pass away. But there is nothing you can do when the heart fails. I stayed at the hospital with him when he was so sick. I loved everything Bumpy did. He was a great guy. He was the greatest guy to me. Thanks for your time Ms. Johnson, We really appreciate it. Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing before we wrap this up?Mayme Johnson: I would say keep your children in school. This one was one of Bumpy’s things. He would always tell the children go to school. Him and Junie Byrd…they’d tell the kids “go to school, get an education, don’t do what I’m doing.” Go and get an education for yourself.  Bumpy would say that. He helped a lot of people. You don’t see anyone doing that now. They getting dispossessed and ending up in the street, Bumpy would go there…even if he didn’t know them…and he would pay their rent for them and tell the mobsters to leave them alone and try to help them get settled. And if there was kids in school that were having a problem or wasn’t gonna have a good Thanksgiving or Christmas…Bumpy would go to the police department and send food and money to help them have a happy holiday. He would close off the streets and throw a party for them. Bumpy was greatly missed in Harlem and you’ll never have another. I just don’t see anyone doing that now. I want to encourage people to visit the website and read the book. The book is Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. You can download the first chapter for free on the site and they can pre-order the book also.