As I have done talks about the Italian Mafia, I often get questions about Mafia organizations in the African-American community in Kansas City and how that connects to the Civella family’s La Cosa Nostra Outfit.
I have learned that most large cities had a similar “Black Mafia” organization during the 1960s and 1970s. In Kansas City, we had the Purple Capsule gang. They were called this because they were noted for selling heroin in purple capsules. Two men named Eugene Richardson and Doc Dearborn were the reputed leaders. During the past few years, information was uncovered that linked this organization to the killing of a well known African-American politician named Leon Jordan. This investigation revealed a connection to the Kansas City Mob and the Jordan murder through an Italian store owner named Joe Centimano — aka “Cokey Joe,” aka “Crazy Joe,” aka “Shotgun Joe,” aka “The Mayor of Vine Street.” Joe Centimano owned a liquor store in the 18th and Vine area. Centimano’s son, Danny Centimano, came forward recently and claimed his father paid Doc Dearborn to kill Jordan. Joe Centimano flew way below the radar because no F.B.I. agent or other law enforcement that worked organized crime remembers anything about him.
In all other cities from Kansas City to New York City, the La Cosa Nostra Families had a relationship with the Black Mafia. The Sicilian organization started out controlling the illegal lottery (in KC it was called “The Wheel”) and the Heroin traffic. After the Appalachian meeting in 1957, the La Cosa Nostra ordered their members out of the drug business. They had sold to black drug organizations and so the Black Mafia was in a position to move on up to control heroin trafficking. The Lottery or “The Wheel” was popular in the black community and soon black gangsters controlled that gambling activity in their neighborhoods. I would suggest that the introduction of crack cocaine to the Black community enabled dozens of small-time black criminals to take away the monopoly of the Black Mafia.
A little known story of that subculture is that of Frank Matthews. He was one of those 1970s Black Mafia kingpins who organized the entire East Coast Heroin trafficking operations. This probably was connected as far west as Kansas City, but little is know about this connection.
My friend and fellow mob historian Ron Chepesiuk has written several books on this subculture in Mob history. Ron recently produced a documentary film about Frank Matthews. Ron learned that in 1960s New York City, Frank Matthews was able to connect into the “French Connection” in Marseilles, France. He forged relationships with other like-minded African American mobsters up and down the East coast. After making millions in the Heroin trade and with law enforcement hot on his trail, Matthews disappeared and has never been found. Here is a link to a trailer from the film, The Frank Matthews Story. Here is a link to more information about Frank Matthews.