In the 1920s, a flourishing and exciting nightlife scene grew out of the Black community at 18th and Vine St. where Kansas City jazz emerged. But the city also had a dark side full of rampant crime, ruthless mobsters, speakeasies and bootleg liquor under the reign of unelected political boss Thomas Pendergast, who ruled the city’s government and criminal underworld from 1925 to 1939.
Pendergast gave the city free rein to push illegal booze to make criminals rich, and he ensured there were no alcohol-related arrests in Kansas City during the entirety of Prohibition. That helped the Italian and Black Mafia and organized crime establish a strong foothold in the city.
“Prohibition was a gift to Kansas City criminals as much as it was to Chicago or any other big city you want to choose,” Terence O’Malley, author of “Black Hand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City” and director of the documentary of the same name, told Thrillist.
While some academic research say Black criminals played a minor role in bootlegging activities, working alongside more powerful Italian Mafia groups, history has shown that there were complex Black organizations that existed independently and made an impact in their own right.
KC’S BLACK MAFIA
In a place where Prohibition didn’t exist, Kansas City also became a place with much drug trafficking.
The Black Mafia, also known as the Purple Capsule Gang, emerged in the 1950s and controlled much of the East Side of Kansas City by the end of the 1960s. They were the most infamous Black gangsters in Kansas City history.
They were called the Purple Capsule Gang for the purple capsules in which they pedaled heroin. The group was blamed for bank robberies, murders, heroin and cocaine pushing, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking.
According to Gangland Wire, the Black Mafia emerged and gained a strong foothold in the drug community after the Italian Mafia ordered their members to stop heroin trafficking. At the height of their operations, FBI records estimate that the Black Mafia was taking in more than $100,000 each day.
The group is also linked to two-dozen mob-style hits.
“They had the ghetto area of Kansas City under their complete control through fear, intimidation, violence and corrupt public officials,” a U.S. Department of Justice report on the Black Mafia read.
Its strategy was recruiting Black youth and drug users to commit bank robberies and forming alliances with Kansas City’s Italian Mafia groups.
The Black Mafia in Kansas City was led by James Phillip “Doc” Dearborn, James Eugene Richardson, and Eddie David Cox, the only White man in a leadership position in the Black Mafia.
According to Gangster Report, Cox was the only Caucasian to have led a Black crime family. He was known as Dearborn’s adviser, and Richardson was the group’s muscle.
Cox and Dearborn met when they served time together in prison at Lansing, KS, and Cox proposed Dearborn take over crime on Kansas City’s east side.
“Eddie Cox was one of the smartest and most dangerous organized crime figures of his era in Kansas City,” retired Kansas City police detective and blogger Gary Jenkins said. “He was one of Doc Dearborn’s most trusted advisers and they controlled a lot of this area’s heroin market for a long time.”
Cox, who is still alive and in his early 80s, was recently released from prison on an order of compassionate release for his age. He had served 32 years of a life sentence for drugs and other offenses.
Dearborn was killed in 1985, gunned down in the parking lot of a motel near the airport during a drug deal.
Richardson died of natural causes in 2008 at age 81.
The Black Mafia organization was broken up around 1970 when federal agents and police conducted post-midnight raids and arrested its members.
KC’S BLACK MAFIA CONNECTION IN ‘FARGO’ SEASON 4
The newest season of the FX anthology show “Fargo” is inspired by Kansas City’s Black Mafia group. The show premiered in 2020 and takes place in Kansas City in the 1950s.
Actor Chris Rock plays the leader of the group, Loy Cannon, who is partially based on Dearborn. The show follows Cannon as he leads the Black Mafia and goes to war with the Italian mob for power in the city’s criminal activities.
While the show depicts the two groups at war, the groups actually worked closely in reality.
THE DEATH OF LEON JORDAN
Leon Jordan began his career as a police officer at the Kansas City Police Department in 1938. He was the first African American to achieve lieutenant rank at KCPD.
After working at the department for more than 10 years and moving to Liberia to help organize a police force, Jordan returned to Kansas City to start a successful career in politics.
He was elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1964 and became one of the most powerful politicians in Kansas City. Jordan also created the powerful Black political organization Freedom Inc. with Bruce R. Watkins in 1961.
During Jordan’s time with KCPD and as a politician, local crime organizations saw him as a threat, because he was a strong opponent of the drug trade and had taken steps to have the mob investigated.
In 1970, Jordan was gunned down outside his bar, the Green Duck Tavern at 2548 Prospect. Since then, there has been many theories surrounding who was responsible for Jordan’s murder and what the motive could have been.
KCPD detectives interviewed Walton I. Froniabarger who had been a part of the Black Mafia and was looking to get some time off of his drug sentence if he gave information about the murder. He said the reason Jordan was killed was political and “contracted by the North End and carried out by Blacks.” The Italian Mafia controlled the North End of Kansas City, which was also known as “Little Italy.”
One of the organizers, he said, was an Italian American liquor store owner known as “Crazy Joe.”
With Froniabarger’s help, county prosecutors assembled a case against three Black men who were eventually indicted in Jordan’s murder. Froniabarger was a key witness.
Authorities charged Dearborn with Jordan’s murder. Two other men, James A. Willis and Maynard Cooper, were indicted later.
Prosecutors could not make the charges stick. Willis was acquitted and charges against Dearborn and Cooper were dropped.
In 2010, a KCPD investigation found that Dearborn was, in fact, the mastermind and gunman who killed Jordan, but why remains a mystery.
Investigators suspect that Joe Centimano, also known as “Shotgun Joe” or “Crazy Joe,” who ran Joe’s Liquors in the Jazz District and served as the go-between gangsters for the Black and Italian Mafia, had provided the murder weapon.
Italian mob boss Nicholas Civella allegedly ordered Jordan be killed, and assigned Shotgun Joe and Dearborn to do it.
Cox, who later discussed the murder with the Kansas City Star, said Jordan angered the mob by refusing to back legislation to loosen regulations on taverns and adult entertainment. That refusal, Cox said, was considered “complete disrespect” to some powerful people.
“Jordan did a number of things that displeased the North End,” Cox told The Star. No one has ever been convicted of the murder.
MEET ONE OF KC’S EARLIEST MOBSTERS: ‘SELDOM SEEN’
Born in 1883 in Oklahoma, Ivory “Seldom Seen” Johnson spent most of his life in Kansas City as a notorious gambler and comedian who owned a brothel and gambling house. He earned his nickname when he started running from police at just 14 years old.
Johnson had been arrested more than 50 times on charges ranging from gambling, fraud, assault and murder and was known for carrying money and drugs in a cigar box.
He was one of the leading gambling operators during the 1930s.
A tall, lanky man who was known to always be armed; he was usually recognized on the streets.
Legend has it that he tossed more than one hundred of his victims in the Missouri River, but that number is probably closer to four or five.
Johnson served four terms in prison, with his last prison term for the 1951 slaying of a witness in a jury-tampering case. He was sentenced to life in prison and paroled in 1966 at 83 years old.
The notorious Kansas City mobster died in Oklahoma in 1985 at age 102.
Actor Harry Belafonte played Johnson in the movie “Kansas City,” which premiered in 1996.
Black Archives of Mid-America
Gangland Wire Blog – ganglandwire.com/
“Racism in Kansas City: A Short History” by G.S. Griffin
“The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob” by Frank R. Hayde
“Open City: True Story of the KC Crime Family” by William Ouseley
“Storied & Scandalous Kansas City: A History of Corruption, Mischief and a Whole Lot of Booze” By Karla Deel