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This coming Sunday, Bumpy Johnson’s story will come to life via the EPIX network’s “Godfather of Harlem” series, starring Forrest Whitaker in the lead role. Johnson was one of the most feared gangsters of his time who also used his powerful influence for good as well.

Ellsworth Raymond Johnson was born October 31, 1905 in Charleston, S.C. At the age of 10, his older brother Willie was sent North with relatives after he was accused of killing a white man. Johnson was sent to Harlem to live with an older sister after his parents felt that his short temper with white folks could get him harmed.

The real Bumpy Johnson

Johnson, who earned his nickname due to a large bump on his head, fell into crime early, burglarizing and pimping in Harlem. After serving a 10-year prison sentence, Johnson crossed paths with Stephanie St. Clair, better known as Madame Queen, who ran an extensive and independent numbers operation in Harlem. While waging war on the Italian mob, who extorted crime networks across New York, Johnson became Madame Queen’s main enforcer and eventually took over her operation.

Johnson was able to arrange a deal with mob boss Lucky Luciano to keep the peace between his gang and the mob, and also keep the numbers operation independent, though he did have to provide a cut of his profits. Despite Johnson’s violent reputation, he gave back to Harlem’s poor, hosting Thanksgiving giveaways and other acts of charity.

In 1951, Johnson was hit with a 15-year prison sentence for heroin distribution in New York, serving time in Alcatraz. After his release in 1963, Johnson resumed his godfather status, but grew tired constant police surveillance and staged a sit-in protest in prison. He was charged and later acquitted for the disturbance. In 1968, while having a breakfast of fried chicken and eggs, Johnson suffered a heart attack and died.

He was 62.

PHOTOS: Public Domain, EPIX

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