The Bishops were a fearsome and powerful black gang that were one of the most well-known of the gangs in New York City. With a base out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, they waged vicious battles with their arch nemesis, the Chaplains gang. Ruthless and aggressive, their violent escapades found their way into the newspapers and to this day, their name is still remembered.
Leading up to July 12, 1960, the Bishops had been making forays into far-off Flatbush, at least 36 blocks from their home turf from Bed-Stuy. Flatbush was a mainly white neighborhood and it is quite a distance in terms of gang warfare. Most gangs fought in their neighborhood or the one adjacent to it, so it was curious to me as to why the Bishops were traveling all the way to Flatbush, or how they would even know the youth there. Whenever they invaded Flatbush, the Bishops terrorized several black youth that were living in the Lott and Beverly street area. They crashed parties, administered beatings, turned over garbage cans, broke automobile antennas and even stabbed one of the boys in the neighborhood, John Collier. They also threatened the boys with bodily harm if they attended a summer school at Erasmus Hall High School located in Flatbush. As usual, looking at some of the facts of the case one can make a solid hypothesis as to why the Bishops were traveling such a big distance when no doubt they probably had their hands full with their enemies in Bed-Stuy.
Although a predominantly white neighborhood, there was a black enclave that lived on several blocks in Flatbush who had been there for several decades. Generally these black families came from a higher socio-economic level than their black counterparts in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It is implied that there was jealousy over this difference in backgrounds from the Bishops. It seems odd that the Bishops had threatened the Flatbush boys from attending Erasmus Hall High, a school that was in the Flatbush neighborhood. The one thing about schools that differed from gang warfare was that although someone could live in one neighborhood, they could travel very far to attend a school elsewhere in Brooklyn or even into Manhattan. It is likely that at least one of the Bishops may have attended Erasmus and resented the Flatbush boys, perhaps for their better standard of living.
By July 12, 1960, one of the Flatbush boys heard from a friend of a friend that the Bishops were coming down on them for a rumble in a Sears Roebuck parking lot. Sears had it’s location on the Beverly and Lott streets, taking up a huge amount of the block. In fact, Sears is still there. Like many gang rumours, nobody knew if the Bishops were really indeed coming, but Lorenzo Register, one of the boys in the group who was the kind of boy who wanted to impress his friends took matters into his own hands. None of the boys were into gang warfare and in fact, this was a loose collection of friends and acquaintances, with no familiarity with fights and rumbles. But Lorenzo had once lived in the Marcy Projects, home to some very aggressive and violent gangs such as the Buccaneers and the Marcy Chaplains. There he remembered seeing a Molotov cocktail used in a fireworks display. Molotov cocktails were especially well-known from World War II, when Finnish soldiers used them against the Russian invaders. Perhaps the boys could make a Molotov cocktail to scare off the Bishops if they came down and in a perfect world, maybe even scare them badly enough where they would never come back?
A couple of blocks away from where Lorenzo Register lived on Beverly Road there was a garage run by “Pete,” who fixed motorcycles. Pete had various tin cans laying around the shop with small amounts of gasoline in them. This was perfect for the home made bomb, so Register got his hand on a Pepsi-cola bottle and put some gasoline in the bottle. Stuffing a rag through the opening, which served as a wick, the bomb was now ready, rudimentary and hopefully enough to thwart the Bishops.
During the 1950s, police would sometimes confiscate Molotov cocktails which were often part of a gangs’ weapons stash, although it wasn’t too common that they were actually used. I did have a chance to interview a member of the East Harlem Dragons and he described a time when he came on the wrong end of a thrown Molotov cocktail. One day he noticed some members of an enemy gang called the Demons who were high up on a tenement roof. Seeing their enemy below, one of the Demons tossed a Molotov cocktail onto the street where it exploded on impact, a few feet away from the Dragon. Although the bomb didn’t hit him, he was near enough that hot liquid splashed onto his leg, which caught fire. It also hit him under his eye. The pain was excruciating. For three months he was in pain and it took a total of 6 months to heal.
When Lorenzo finished making the Molotov cocktail, he was ready. Collecting some of the guys from the neighborhood, they were now ready for the Bishops. There were seven of them – Robert Brown, John Collier, Frank Heyward, Nathan Orr, Lorenzo Register, Esaw Kelly and Julius Thompson. They decided to meet in the Sears Roebuck parking lot, the supposed place where the rumble would take place. The boys brought along a bottle of burgundy wine to consume (liquid courage?) while they waited for the dreaded Bishops.
As the boys were passing time, Patrolman Calvin Helfer, an officer of the 67th Precinct, received a confidential tip that there was bad blood between the teens in Flatbush and the Bishops and a rumble was about to take place. Taking a car load of plainclothes policemen, they observed the boys in the parking lot huddled and gathered around an abandoned automobile. Descending upon the unsuspecting Flatbush boys, the police lined them all up to search them. They didn’t find anything and were about to let them go, when the Molotov cocktail was discovered. This was serious because now the boys were in possession of a weapon – a felony. All of them were taken to the 67th Precinct and questioned there at length. All of them were charged with Unlawful Assembly as well as CDW (Carrying a Dangerous Weapon).
The police themselves didn’t view the boys they arrested as hard youth. In fact it really did appear that the boys banded together to protect themselves and they weren’t using it as a convenient excuse. Two men who were prominent citizens in Flatbush also stood up to vouch for the boys: Allen Fagin Jr., a Youth Program Director of the newly organized Flatbush Civic Community and it’s President, Raymond Jackson. Both men felt that the local boys had no choice but to organize themselves for protection against the marauding Bishops. Fagin and Jackson both contended that there was not one single instance of delinquency of any consequence reported in the community.
While it was true the community wasn’t known for gang fights, most of the boys did have records. John Collier was the only one of the seven boys who did not have a record and was able to get out on bail. Robert Brown was involved in a burglary, Frank Heyward had broken into parking meters, Nathan Orr was caught in possession of burglar’s tools and was involved in a shakedown, Lorenzo Register was also involved in a shakedown and Julius Thompson had a record for attempted rape. Kelly had the longest legal history among all the boys with several arrests.
Even with these records, some of the boys had shown promise in becoming law-abiding citizens. For example, Brown had excellent leadership qualities and was the assistant basketball coach as well as chairman of an entertainment committee. Collier (the only one who had no record) was relieved the police caught them because it meant there could be some resolution against the Bishops. He was the one who was stabbed and was fearful of another attack. Heyward was a very quiet and well-behaved youngster. Even though Register made the Molotov cocktail, he was a follower and craved the favour of his peers. Orr was active in the Flatbush Boys Club and had a good reputation with the adults in the neighborhood. The two boys that could be considered trouble makers were Julius Thompson and Esaw Kelly.
Julius Thompson was considered the “dullest” of the group and was only mildly tolerated by the group of boys. When questioned by the police, he denied knowing about the bomb even though Register showed everyone. Esaw Kelly had a lengthy legal history beginning in 1955 when he was caught for skipping school. In 1956 he was picked up for annoying storekeepers, breaking into parking meters, and then arrested for malicious mischief. This was followed by several arrests in 1957, including burglarizing a home, attempted burglary, smoking on trains, stealing another boy’s school pass and throwing an open-blade knife at a teacher’s head.
Despite these issues, for the most part the records of these boys wasn’t of a generally violent nature, especially in regards to gang fights. The boys didn’t view themselves as a gang, and when Register was being questioned by the Judge in court, the following exchange happened:
Judge: What is the name of the gang or the club? Let’s call it a club.
Register: There is no club.
Judge: The social worker calls it a social club. You must not call it a gang because you might hurt the poor little dears. They call it a club. What is the name of the little social club of which you are a member?
Register: It was just the fellows that live around my way.
Judge: What is the name of the club?
Register: There is no name.
Judge: Just a social gathering?
Register: Just the fellows that live around my way.
The boys had the bad luck of getting the Honorable Samuel Leibowitz as the presiding judge. Leibowitz had a reputation as a very tough judge, raining down thunder from his seat. When it came to the plea, he let Collier go free on bail because he had no record and had a steady job. The rest of the boys were sent to Elmira Correctional Centre and had a charge of Unlawful Assembly added to their rap sheets (the CDW was dropped).
So, in the end the Bishops emerged victorious and they didn’t even have to go down for a rumble.