Marcy, Sumner and a Nest of Youth Gangs

In my research I would say one of the most dense areas of street gangs in New York City was the Marcy and Sumner Projects and the surrounding blocks.  The projects are practically next to each other and the area was crawling with gangs in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Gangs like the Black Diamonds, Ellery Bops, Young Demons, Jesters, Medallion Lords, Stompers, Imperial Lords, Buccaneers, Immortal Sinners, Latin Kings, Vikings and Marcy Chaplains.   I could only imagine what it would be like for the NYPD and Housing Police to patrol this area.

Not that far from Sumner and Marcy Projects were the Albany Projects, Bushwick Projects, Kingsboro Projects, Fort Greene Projects and the Brevoort Projects.  These projects all had their own gangs, so the gang name would follow the project name such as the Fort Greene Chaplains, Albany chaplains etc.  The projects served as a turf for the gang residing there, but outside of the projects, there were either no boundaries for other gangs, or there would be overlapping or even turfs that enemy gangs shared.  Part of the reason for this is because many gang members lived in another turf, but belonged to a different gang, for example like China, a Buccaneer who lived in the Marcy Projects.

An example of enemy gangs sharing the same turf were the Demons, Imperial Lords, Stompers and Medallion Lords who shared the area near JHS 57.  The Demons fought all three of these gangs who were allied with each other, and although they were a small gang, they had plenty of heart.  The Demons even fought the Marcy Chaplains and Quintoes, gangs that weren’t in their neighborhood.

One might notice that the Chaplains seemed to be a dominant gang in Brooklyn during the 1950s.  You would be correct in thinking this.  Although it was implied that all the Chaplains gangs could join together in one big free-for-all, this kind of thing didn’t really happen in large scale.  However, the brotherhood between the different Chaplains’ gangs would have been real, especially for those boys who would visit other neighborhoods or move to a new one.  A quick look at the different Chaplains factions would reveal that there were the Marcy Chaplains, Fort Greene Chaplains, DeKalb Chaplains, Brevoort Chaplains and Albany Chaplains.  All of these gangs made headlines for gang violence at some point in their histories.  The Marcy Chaplains followed closely by the Fort Greene Chaplains were probably the most active and notorious out of all the Chaplains’ gangs.

The histories between the gangs, their allegiances, and hatreds shifted on a constant basis.  Friends one day, enemies another.  Trying to keep track of this 60 years later is very, very difficult.  Thankfully, a friend of mine is a former Buccaneer who not only is well written, but also has a great memory.  He was instrumental in explaining the atmosphere during this time.  In regards to changing alliances, he explained how one guy he knew betrayed the Buccaneers.  He hung out with the Buccaneers, although never became a member.  He fought alongside them against the Marcy Chaplains, but one day he inexplicably betrayed  the Buccaneers.  The day of reckoning came soon enough for him when the Buccaneers found him and trapped him on the roof of a Floyd Street building, where he tried to get away in vain.  They brought the traitor to the edge of the roof in order to throw him off.  Below on the street, watching the event unfold was a cop by the name of Hacksaw.  He actually encouraged the Buccaneers to drop the traitor down; obviously he cared not one bit for the boy about to meet a gruesome death.  Perhaps he figured the boy would die and since he could see the Buccaneers, he would bust them for killing him.  However, calmer heads prevailed and instead they gave the traitor a beating, but stopped enough to let him walk away.

In addition to shifting allegiances, enemies, overlapping turfs and betrayals, were situations where friends founds themselves in opposite gangs.  This was explained to me by the former Buccaneer who explained how it affected him and his very good friend “Butch,” who was in the Marcy Chaplains.  Whenever the two gangs would fight, the two friends took great care not to go near each other so to as avoid having to attack each other.  The Buccaneers seemed to understand this dynamic, but the Marcy Chaplains were having none of that.  They tried to persuade Butch to grab his friend so they could hurt him, but he was a loyal friend and wouldn’t budge.  One day, the former Buccaneer was made to stay in school until 4 p.m. instead of the usual 3 p.m. departure.  As he and his class were leaving the school, he didn’t realize that 10 Marcy Chaplains were lurking, ready for him to leave.  As he saw them, Butch screamed, “Run”!!!  The Buccaneer barely got past them; one Chaplain got his hands on him, but he was able to break loose.  The Marcy Chaplains were furious and wanted to beat Butch, one of their own.

To make things yet more confusing for outsiders looking in (and maybe even gang members themselves?), members of both the Buccaneers and Marcy Chaplains often had girlfriends in each others’ turfs.  Visiting their girls was an adventure in itself…  The Buccaneers and Marcy Chaplains also went to  the same schools and attended the same classes.  For example, at 3:00 p.m. all hell broke loose at JHS 148 and JHS 33.  The center for the schools was considered the territory of the Marcy Chaplains, but really neither school was controlled by anyone.  Fights at 3 p.m. were the norm.  It was almost 3 blocks away from home turf for the Marcy Chaplains, so it was tough for them, especially because it was in Ellery Bop and Latin Kings turf.  The Buccaneers had no problems at JHS 148, but it was a different story for them at JHS 33.  It was only a block away from the Marcy Projects on Tompkins between Floyd and Stockton Streets, so every day was a battle for them.

Some of the gangs near each other including the Buccaneers, Demons, Tiny Tims, Ellery Bops, Latin Kings rarely fought against each other.  Some of them were friendly with each other such as the Tiny Tims and Buccaneers, so friendly in fact that most outsiders – including the police – looked at them as one gang and called them Buccaneers.  But one thing could be counted on: nearly everyone fought the hated Marcy Chaplains, who were besieged on all sides, holding down the fort in the Marcy Houses.  Two gangs in particular that had on and off again fighting and peace periods, were the Marcy Chaplains and Buccaneers, both gangs with mostly black members.  Up to September 1960, the Buccaneers and Marcy Chaplains had fought each other for years.  Amazingly, although there were stabbings and shootings, nobody had been killed (that would eventually change).

But the season for the Buccaneers changed too.  For quite awhile they had a brother club relationship with the three-headed monster gang of the Stompers, Medallion Lords and Imperial Lords, and their fights were constrained to the Marcy Chaplains, but not the other gangs in the area.  But in the run up to the spring of 1960, the Buccaneers were getting sick and tired of the shenanigans of the Stompers and Medallion Lords, some of whom were grown – even married – men who thought they could run the show at the center at PS 59 in the Sumner Projects which was considered Buccaneers territory.  The Buccaneers then voted in a charismatic and fearsome leader nicknamed “Keno,” who took matters into his own hands.  Keno set the tone and he and the Buccaneers, who were younger, mostly in the ages of 12-17, began to push back against the much older Stompers, Medallion Lords and Imperial Lords, some of whom had guns and cars vs. the zip guns and knives of the Buccaneers.  The three gangs didn’t like this very much and became violent with the Buccaneers, who only became more violent with them in return.  This was war.

And just like that, the alliance the Buccaneers had with the Medallion Lords, Stompers and Imperial Lords evaporated.  But the Buccaneers’ constant warfare with the Marcy Chaplains didn’t end, so now the Buccaneers were against four gangs instead of one.    Now that they were fighting the three other gangs, it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of the Buccaneers; they now became the gang that everyone hated, like the Marcy Chaplains had been.

With all these changing relationships between the gangs, one thing remained: many gangs from around the area were drawn to the Marcy and Sumner projects like a moth to a flame.  The reputations the Buccaneers and Marcy Chaplains had were a challenge to newcomers –  after-all if one could beat them, their own rep would increase in size and so it was a never-ending battle of skirmishes, fights, stabbings and shootings as everyone vied for dominance as the top dog.  Sometimes multiple, united gangs from the outside would “pull a roll,” coming into the projects looking for the Buccaneers.  In this remarkable recounting, the former Buccaneer described what happened in this exact situation:

One night, summer of 1960, our enemies pulled a roll, there were so many, that we knew it wasn’t one or two gangs (Chaplains, Stompers, Imperial Lords, Medallion Lords, and it was said about 3 or 4 others.) Anyway, we first spotted them coming up Lewis Ave towards Myrtle Ave, also on Vernon Ave coming towards Lewis Ave from Stuyvesant Ave. We (Frankie Griffin, Butch, his bro Bunny, and myself) ran down towards Sumner and Myrtle Aves, to give the warning, as most hung out in a candy store there. As we ran down Myrtle we could see some coming from the Bway and Park Ave side, of the projects. We ran even faster. When we hit Sumner Ave, they were coming from Vernon Ave, and in the other direction from Park Ave. Keno, Rock, Jocko, China, Cody, Bulldog , Price, Milton Burke (Heart) and a few others were there, and we made our stand there, with whatever we had, knives, pipes, garbage cans-tops,whatever. I myself, as well as a few others had sharpened umbrella canes, after, what seemed like 5-7 minutes, bullets started whizzing by us, and we turned to run, but we heard Keno say “Don’t a mf’er run!” So we fought on, but more bullets started flying hitting cars, buildings, and everything, so then keno and a few said to run, so we ran. We could not go into our own projects as they were coming from Throop Ave, Park Ave side. We could not go on Myrtle Ave towards Tompkins, as they were coming from there too. So we turned towards Vernon Ave, but there too they were coming, so turned on Vernon Ave towards Tompkins. Bulldog asked me to help him, as he had been shot, but I asked others to help me, because he was much bigger than I. Our only escape was to run into the precinct on Tompkins and Vernon Aves. Even the cops were like “WTF!!!” Keno said we were going back out, but the cops pulled guns, and shotguns, and did not allow us to get out. Our enemies were outside telling us to come out and fight. Cops did nothing about them, as this basically was a traffic precinct. Later we confirmed Bulldog had indeed been shot, and so had Price. I think one or two had been stabbed. We were transported in police busses to the 79th Precinct, questioned and released in enemy turf, Throop and Gates Ave. (Stompers, IL, ML, DekCha etc)

Everyone figured there had to be at least 5 different gangs that rolled on us that night. Too, too many to be one or two.

By 1960, the Marcy and Sumner Projects and the area around it was a turmoil of violent attacks, fights, stabbings and shootings between the various gangs.  The New York City Youth Board sent a worker in there to work with the gangs, but nothing seemed to thwart the violence.  In September 1960, a member of the Buccaneers nicknamed “Jewboy,” was beat to death with baseball bats.  Hundreds attended his funeral, with not a dry eye in the place.  In 1961, the Buccaneers/Tiny Tims added to the body count, killing three Stompers/Medallion Lords/Imperial Lords over the year.

Yes, Marcy and Sumner was a dangerous place to be.

Special thanks to my friend who was a former Buccaneer for helping me figure out the histories of the various gangs.