Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are receiving the plaudits of critics for their bravura performances as Frank Lucas, glamorous Harlem gangster, and Richie Roberts, incorruptible New Jersey detective in the recently released American Gangster . Gangster is a hard movie to watch. Filled with violence that is depicted graphically, language that used to be termed gutter, and an anger that literally rips at those at whom it is directed, the film leaves one shuddering at the heroin-driven crime scene that physically and mentally corrupted and destroyed a generation of late-1960s and early-1970s inner-city and suburban youth caught in its Blue Magic addiction clutches. Corrupted too was a New York City police narcotics division that saw close to 50 percent of its members indicted and convicted for being on the take to the drug lords they were supposedly out to get.
While on-screen for a short time as the movie opens, the legendary figure of Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson¯Frank Lucas mentor¯looms large over the entire American Gangster story. In real life, Bumpy Johnson was a remarkable character. I have come to know of him only in the last year or so¯and undoubtedly will wrestle with what I will say about him as I write myself into the biography I am researching of another remarkable Harlem character who knew Bumpy well. The Reverend Doctor John Howard Johnson is the friend and priest to whom Johnson turned for counsel and direction in his time of need¯and for companionship and good company over many a game of chess in the rectory of St. Martins Episcopal Church at 122nd and Malcolm X Boulevard .
In April of 1959, W.B. Spofford Sr., another Harlem minister, wrote the following about John Howard Johnson:
It is no exaggeration to say that John H. Johnson is the number one citizen of Harlem and one of the first citizens of the entire city of New York. Besides being the rector of a parish with 2,000 communicants, John Johnson serves on innumerable committees, both in the diocese and the city¯the latter generally by appointment of the Mayor.
Some years ago, when race riots were threatened, it was the rector of St. Martins who toured the streets of Harlem and quieted the mobs, at the request of the Mayor.
He has been a police chaplain for twenty years, the main duties of which are the personal counseling for police officers, visiting sick policemen and their families, attending public functions where police are involved, giving lectures at the Police Academy.
A star athlete when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, he was for a number of years the Czar of the Negro Baseball League¯a position similar to that held by Ford Frick for the major leagues. The Negro League ended when segregation came to an end in the Majors¯with the rector of St. Martins playing his considerable part in this development.
A few years ago I was invited by Dr. Johnson to conduct a forum at St. Martins. Its aim, partly, was integration with my job not merely to line-up speakers but also to get white and other peoples to attend. The forum met in the late afternoon and a few of us generally ate together afterwards in a famous restaurant on Harlems main thoroughfare, 125th Street. When the towering rector of St. Martins entered he was hailed on all sides by innumerable people¯Negro and white¯most of whom he called by their given names.
One did not have to walk about Harlem many times with John Johnson without knowing that he is Citizen Number One, and that he is that because of the service he and his parish give to all sorts and conditions of men.
Have we not confused things? Shouldn’t eyebrows be raised about another movie depicting Harlem as the land of criminals, shot in part at St. Martins, and now released to critical acclaim? To date, the evil and the good that was Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson has been featured in two major Hollywood movies, The Cotton Club and Hoodlum . In each case he was played by the noted actor Lawrence Fishburne. The accomplished actor John Amos took on the role of Bumpy in the television special Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story . And now we have Bumpys protégé and adopted son, Frank Lucas, glamorized in a magnificent performance by Denzel Washington.
Isn’t it the wrong First Citizen of Harlem on whom our attention has been focused by Hollywood movie moguls, while the work of the real first goes unnoticed¯and even worse, the physical, artistic legacy that is St. Martins cries out for restoration and care that limited funds wont permit?
In his time, Bumpy Johnson was labeled as an extortionist. He certainly was—but he also had a soft side. It was common knowledge among Harlemites that he often helped many of Harlems poor with secret cash donations and gifts, or as American Gangster depicts, not so secret Thanksgiving turkeys. Denzel Washington is reported to have made $40 million for his role in Gangster . His fellow actors Lawrence Fishburne and John Amos were undoubtedly paid handsomely for their portrayals of John Johnsons friend and congregant Bumpy Johnson. And given the reality of the world we live in, each deserves all he has been paid.
What is also deserving, I would argue, is St. Martins, from which Bumpy was carried to his eternal reward, having been eulogized there by his rector and chess friend, John Howard Johnson, and in which Denzel Washington, the always delightful Ruby Dee, and Russell Crowe perform their screen magic. One cant help but wonder if it is expecting too much to think that those who benefit so handsomely from the history and legacy of Harlem as hoodlum center and sought-after film location might extend the arm of generosity, as Bumpy the real hoodlum did in his lifetime, to that part of the hoodlums legacy that is found in the St. Martins of today?
And then another thought about legacy and remembering comes to mind. Denzel Washington, Lawrence Fishburne, or John Amos as John Howard Johnson in a Hollywood feature about Harlems real first citizen.
John Howard Johnson restored, and then restored again, a church building ravaged by two major fires. He gathered there a Christian flock of several thousand strong, serving them as a good shepherd of Christ. That flock and their shepherd were perhaps most publicly in evidence on Sunday evening, November 16, 1958, when Reverend Johnson presided at an Evensong Service marking the thirtieth anniversary of the church he had begun in 1928 as a mission outpost chapel of the Episcopal Mission Society. More than six thousand congregants, friends of St. Martins, and representatives of Harlem’s civic and fraternal organizations listened to their minister and friend reference the startling growth of his church as a recognition of the basic unity of man. Beneath superficial signs of nationality, race and language, Johnson said, there exists the solidarity of man.
And then, as he would so often from his own pulpit, Reverend Johnson connected the principle that was the bedrock of his ministry to the reality of a world where his people were paying a severe price as they engaged in a struggle to affirm that solidarity in the face of growing racial discord and violence: When indecent acts of violence and religious intolerance take place; when defenseless persons are assaulted; when churches, synagogues and schools are blasted by dynamite, we are amazed and we feel ashamed, but we are not frightened, intimidated or discouraged. For the day of truth is coming in this matter of human dignity. Slower than we want it to come, but without fail it is coming.
John Howard Johnson’s Harlem of the middle decades of the twentieth century has been replaced by a Harlem where the children and grandchildren of his congregants, supported by the life lessons given them by their parents and their priests, have left the tenements and brownstones of their early years for presumably greener pastures in the suburbs. These children and grandchildren, caught up in the comings and goings of their everyday lives, can hardly be expected to have a vital sense of their parents’ and grandparents experiences at St. Martins as an identity-shaping force for their own lives. And that is unfortunate.
The loss that the passage of time extracts from ones identity is captured by David Biesel, the publisher of the soon-to-be-reissued John Howard Johnson authored Fact Not Fiction In Harlem . There is probably a lawyer in the Midwest who is the grandson of someone who benefited [from St. Martin’s] and doesnt even know it, Biesel reflects. They only know my father, my grandfather, my grandmother came to some church in New York City and they got their start there.
Biesel goes on to note what must have been obvious to anyone who knew John Howard Johnson, that he was not looking for a reward, at least not in this world, for the work he did as St. Martins rector. He ministered for its own sake, for the sake of people he served, and for the sake of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. But what of those who do not understand fully how St. Martins shaped who they have become? Dont they still owe a debt that could best be repaid by reconnecting to the beautiful place that helped make them who they are? Out of that reconnecting, might they not find ways to support St. Martins physical restoration and its continued spiritual service to their successors, who live today where their parents and grandparents lived, and prayed, and built for them the lives they enjoy? In so doing they would not only be honoring the legacy of John Howard Johnson, and bestowing upon present and future generations the great gift of beauty that a restored St Martins would be. They would also be benefiting themselves by coming to know in new ways those who have made them who they are.
And do not those from the Hollywood Land of Oz who use for their own benefit the sanctuary of St. Martins also need to connect to and support this special sacred place? One looks around on a Sunday morning and sees small groups of worshipers¯practically all of an advanced age¯attending the 10 o’clock service, ever loyal to their St. Martins. One sees the sacred beauty of the sanctuary, with its magnificent renderings of great works of art mounted on walls that are in need of refurbishing. One also sees a sacred place that cries out to be used by todays Harlem residents who are as much, if not more, in need of the spiritual, social, economic, and moral sustenance that this sacred Episcopal place once provided to those six thousand who celebrated its thirtieth anniversary so many years ago.
If one knows the story of John Howard Johnson as we come to know it here, if one comes to experience both the present and potential beauty of this sacred place called St Martins, one can only hope and pray that this sanctuary of worship will be filled again with a restored physical beauty, and with the beauty of the voices and sounds of a congregation that will find there what those “destiny seekers found in their immigrants church for themselves and their children in those wonderful days of old.
As usual, Scripture says it best.
Thus says the Lord: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God. He comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water. (Isaiah 35:4“7)
Lawrence Hogan is the author as well of A Black National News Service: The Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett (St. Johann Press, 2002) and Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball (National Geographic and National Baseball Hall of Fame).