Teaching Students About Bumpy Johnson
Teaching students about notable historical figures is a great way to bring history to life and create a connection between the past and the present. One such figure, often overlooked in the classroom, is Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson. Known as the “Godfather of Harlem,” Bumpy Johnson was an infamous African-American mob boss, gangster, and philanthropist who had a significant impact on American organized crime during the early-to-mid twentieth century. This article outlines how educators can incorporate lessons about Bumpy Johnson into their curriculum.
Born in 1905 in Charleston, South Carolina, Bumpy Johnson grew up in a hostile environment where racial discrimination and violence were frequently experienced by African Americans. His family moved to Harlem, New York, where he got involved in organized crime under the tutelage of Stephanie St. Clair. Throughout his life, Bumpy was involved in various illegal activities, including extortion, gambling, and murder.
Despite his criminal undertakings, Bumpy was widely respected among the Harlem community for his charitable works and efforts to protect residents from police brutality. He was known for standing up against racism and using his power to defend his people against external threats.
1. Analyze historical context: Discuss the era of Bumpy’s reign as a mob boss (1930s-1960s) with your students. Encourage them to understand how racial tension impacted Harlem during this period.
2. The interconnectedness of organized crime and society: Using primary sources such as newspaper articles or court records will enable students to see how crime affected everyday life during Bumpy’s time. Explore how organized crime provided economic benefits for some neighborhoods while also posing significant social and ethical problems.
3. Character study: Teach students the duality of Bumpy Johnson’s character by examining his criminal pursuits alongside his philanthropic activities. By dividing students into groups and assigning each side of Bumpy’s life to research, this will lead to a more in-depth understanding of the complexities of Bumpy Johnson.
4. Ethics and morality: Use Bumpy’s life as an opportunity to discuss ethics and moral questions with your students. Is it possible for someone involved in criminal activity to be considered a hero? This can lead to engaging classroom discussions on morality and philosophical questions.