It is now over a year since I began my researches into the nature, history, future prospects, and larger meaning of Harlem (with special emphasis on homicide and narcotics); the time has come to stop and admit defeat. In 10 years of journalistic enterprise, I have never bitten off so much more than I could chew. My ambitions for this project have shrunk drastically with each passing month — and now, faced with the task of completion, I find it hard to eke out even a few simple conclusions. As I wrote several weeks ago, I feel battered by culture shock — an experience that has mainly served to teach me how little I know, and how much I have falsely assumed.
Take, for example, the rather important matter of drugs. It is impossible to look at Harlem and overlook all the junkies. They brought to mind a college lecture about the introduction of cheap gin into 18th-century England — the gist of which was that it had decimated the urban working class. The gist was all I remembered but I thought, my God, gin was Ovaltine compared to heroin!
It seemed to me that a proletariat of drug addicts was something new under the sun, and I wondered how it could have come about. The more people I asked, the more I was struck by the fact that nobody knew. Even speculation as to when the phenomenon began was vague and disparate — around the Depression, after the War, in the late ’50s. It was as if the heroin epidemic were such an overwhelming aspect of the present that it had drowned out people’s memory of a time when it didn’t exist. But that happier era, I knew, could not have been so long ago; because Malcolm X, in his autobiography, devotes several chapters to the Harlem of 1943, and dwells on reefer as the great plague among those who had to “keep themselves narcotized to keep from having to face their miserable existence.” Reefer — what every prep-school boy now smokes.
One afternoon in October, Rudy Langlais, an editor at The Voice, invited me to lunch with Claude Brown. Of course, I was thrilled to meet the author of Manchild in the Promised Land, that classic portrait of growing up in Harlem. He was impressive in appearance — strong as a bull-god; large eyes, large head, neat mustache, and neatly tended vandyke with a little silver in it.
The lunch had not gone on for long before I realized that Claude Brown was working on the subject of drugs in Harlem — and had cracked it. It had taken three years of intense scholarly research and field work. And even he had despaired of ever finding out precisely how the epidemic started, until he met a 58-year-old prison inmate who laid out the whole story for him in 20 minutes.
Brown didn’t tell me the inmate’s story, but he did give me a broad outline of his own findings. Until the end of the Second World War, he said, heroin was a relatively exotic drug uptown, available only to the most successful jazz musicians; cocaine was far more common among the hoi polloi. The decisive year was 1947. That was when the East Side Italian mobsters began to tell the blacks: “You want to get high? This is coke with something added, makes the high last longer.” The something added was horse. It came in Number 10 capsules then, 90 per cent pure; no nodding out, just a clean high. Each cap contained half a gram of heroin — half a coke spoon — and cost 50 cents.
By 1950, when Claude was 15, heroin had become the preeminent street drug. All the older kids, 17 and 18, were suddenly snorting horse, and soon it became the fashion to nod, scratch, and cultivate other symptoms of heroin use. They didn’t yet know that you could get addicted. It wasn’t until 1952 or 1953 that Brown started hearing about addicts, about whole youth gangs dissolving because all the members had developed habits. That is, if they lived. In those days, the shock was so bad when you went off the pure stuff going cold turkey didn’t mean getting sick, it meant you died.
It was the black street distributors who first hit upon the revolutionary idea of increasing profits by diluting the heroin with lactose or quinine. Then the Italian wholesalers found out what their flunkies were doing and started cutting it themselves. The quality has dropped steadily over the years, and most of the junk now being sold in the streets contains between 3 and 6 per cent heroin.
In the course of my own reporting, I filled in more of the story. In the 1950s, there were one or two black dealers like Baps Ross, who bought in volume from the mobbies on a strictly cash-and-carry basis; Baps built up a nest-egg of $800,000 before he got put away. The success of these pioneers paved the way for the generation of the ’60s, youngsters like William “Goldfinger” Terrell (recently murdered) and his partner, Nicky Barnes; this generation established credit with the mobbies, bought on consignment, and amassed million-dollar fortunes. By far the most colossal figure of that era was Frank Matthews, the first black dealer to do serious business with Cuban and Colombian sources and to develop a nationwide distribution network. Matthews’s exploits have been chronicled in fascinating detail by Donald Goddard in his book, Easy Money; the colossus is now in retirement — a free man, thanks to plastic surgery.
The greatest breakthrough, however, was achieved in the early 1970s by the legendary Frank Lucas and his Country Boys, who established a Southeast Asian connection and a system of importing raw dope in the body bags of Vietnam casualties. They say that Lucas stashed away $93 million and bought up 40 square miles of North Carolina before he got sent up; poor Frank is now singing shrilly in an effort to get his 70-year term reduced.
Around the same time Lucas hooked up with the Golden Triangle, the NYPD busted virtually all the mobbies on Pleasant Avenue, thus wiping out the black wholesalers’ competition. Soon thereafter, the highest councils of the mob made it a capital offense for any of their number to traffic in narcotics; drugs brought in far less revenue than gambling, and the profits simply weren’t worth the grief. There are still Italian wholesalers to be found in this city, but they are young renegades flying in the faces of their elders.
It is only fair to point out that the black dealers could never have made it so big without the help of our own government, both local and federal. Compared to the government’s battle against narcotics, its conduct of the war in Vietnam was a work of genius. I don’t know what was done about the heroin epidemic in the ’50s, but it can’t have been much. By the early ’60s New York was firmly established as the world’s largest dope distribution center and already contained half the addicts in the country. Later on, the War on Poverty helped capitalize the Harlem drug business; dealers like Bumpy Johnson, Georgia Gene, and Frank Lucas rode around with their Cadillac trunks crammed full of stolen HARYOU money. It was also about this time that many members of the NYPD’s crack narcotics squad, the Special Investigations Unit, began getting into the drug business themselves, stealing from the dealers and selling through crews of their own. You can read all about that too, because one of the SIU cops has written his memoirs, modestly titled Prince of the City; he will soon be portrayed by John Travolta in a major motion picture.
In the course of my research, I interviewed a black homicide detective who was not involved with the SIU and is now recognized as an authority on New York City’s black underworld. By 1967, this detective had begun to realize the extent to which black dealers were running the heroin business. When one of the big drug tycoons got killed, the detective spent two days sitting in a car opposite Benta’s Funeral Home, where all the great Harlem wakes are held. The girlfriends of the deceased got together to send a wreath in the shape of a Lincoln Continental, and all his colleagues turned out for the services. The detective wrote down their license plates. By the time the dealer was in the ground, the detective had compiled enough leads to keep him busy for months. Well before the year was out, he was able to prove that blacks were overtaking the mob and becoming drug magnates in their own right. He took his finding to Franks Hogan’s D.A.’s office and laid out the whole situation. Hogan’s people were polite but uninterested. Blacks, they explained, were simply incapable of doing what the detective said; they didn’t have the organizational skills, the discipline, the financial know-how to run a large drug operation. The detective thanked them for their wisdom and left.
A few years later, in 1972, the Drug Enforcement Administration made an incredible discovery. “Several years ago, when the term ‘Organized Crime’ was used, the average citizen and even some law-enforcement officers across the country felt that this term applied exclusively to one ethnic group,” began a secret report by the agency’s Unified Intelligence Division. “Recently, however, we have come to realize that blacks in this country play a major part in the distribution of heroin.” And the report goes on to give a lengthy description of what the black detective had discovered years before.
But before I condemn the federal government for taking 20 years to see that blacks could run the heroin business, let me stop and remind myself that it took one year of reporting and a riot for me to see that blacks were the major story of the courthouse. Or, rather, to see blacks. It is a cliché that has been endlessly repeated, but it’s worth bringing up one more time because it still holds true in 1979: Blacks are invisible to most white people in this country. They took on a little substance for a while in the ’60s, when they kicked up a storm; it was hard not to see the Panthers, the Muslims, the rioters in Watts, Harlem, and Detroit. But now they have grown quiet again, and it takes an effort to see them, to look at them and wonder what they are thinking, what they are going to do about their lot in American life. Of course, the thing that makes blacks invisible and that makes whites so indifferent, so thick, is racism.
As I come to the end of this series, I haven’t much insight to offer, unfortunately. I went to Harlem, and I looked, and I made some friends, who confirmed for me that what I saw was just as bad as it appeared, if not worse. Beyond what I have written, I can only add that Harlem has left me incredibly depressed. I literally cannot imagine what it must be like to live there. Harlem is a place almost totally without hope; it therefore inspires intense hedonistic greed, desperate violence, and high flights of spirituality.
As for myself, I’d say I’m a little ahead of the game. I’ve been able to spend some time learning about the issue of race and my own racism, which, in the past, had always kept me cowed and confused. I have also been able to meet some new people in this city, just as I had wished — not the New Elite, I’ll grant you but all the newer for that. Of course, some of the people I’ve met were blacks, both good and bad. In fact, that’s the only thing I can really say I’ve accomplished. I didn’t see any corpses, I didn’t unravel the web of Harlem’s drug-related homicides, I didn’t find out a fraction of what I wanted to know about Harlem’s history — but I did confront my fear of black Americans and their rage. That, at least, is a beginning. ■
This is the fifth and final story in a series on Harlem:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 20, 2019