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Mayme Hatcher Johnson, dead at 94

OW Staff | 5/6/2009, 5 p.m.

Philadelphia, PA -- Mayme Hatcher Johnson, a native of North Carolina who spent most of her life in Harlem, died in Philadelphia on Friday, May 1, 2009 of respiratory failure.

Mrs. Johnson was born in 1914 in N.C., and moved to New York City in 1938, where she found work as a waitress in a club owned by singer/actress Ethel Waters. In 1948 she met and married Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, the legendary Harlem gangster who was depicted in the movies "The Cotton Club," "Hoodlum," and "American Gangster."

In her book, Harlem Godfather, she told of meeting Bumpy for the first time in a Harlem restaurant.

"Before long I was known as Bumpy's girl. It was a good title to possess. It meant I could get in anywhere I wanted to go, I was treated as queen wherever I went, and I was showered with gifts and jewelry on a steady basis. It also meant that I was constantly accosted by other women who were in love with Bumpy and wanted me out of the way. At first I was upset, but then I pretty much learned to ignore them. Like Bumpy said, they wouldn't even be stepping to me if they didn't realize that I was the one real woman in his life. And hell if I was going to let them back me away from a man who treated me as good as Bumpy treated me. . .

"Bumpy and I met in April 1948. In October that year we were driving past 116th and St. Nicholas Avenue in his Cadillac when he suddenly turned to me and said, "Mayme, I think you and I should go ahead and get married."

"I was stunned, but I kept my composure. I said simply, Is that right? He said, 'Yes, that's right,' and kept on driving. We were married in a civil ceremony just two weeks later."

She remained married to Bumpy until his death of a heart attack in 1968, though he was incarcerated at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary for 10 years of their marriage.

Johnson was a long-time member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Harlem, and was known for her charitable and volunteer activities.

"Mayme was a class act, and had a big heart," said Henry "Perk" Perkins, a Harlem restaurateur who was a close friend of both Bumpy and Mrs. Johnson. "She was the sweetest woman in the world, but she didn't take any nonsense."

In 2004, Johnson moved to Philadelphia, and three years later decided to finally write a biography about her husband, so that "people could know the truth about him rather than all the myths." Harlem Godfather was published in February 2008. More than 200 people attended the book launch party held in Harlem.

"Yeah, she was tickled pink to tell people she was an author at age 93," Perkins said with a laugh.
"Boy, it really made her proud to finally get that book done."

Johnson was notified two days before her death that a film production company was negotiating to purchase a book option for Harlem Godfather.

Johnson is survived by a granddaughter Margaret Johnson of New York City; a grandson Anthony Johnson of London, England; a sister Lily Andrews of North Carolina; a brother Melvin Hatcher of North Carolina; and two goddaughters Karen E. Quinones Miller and Camille R. Quinones Miller of Philadelphia. A daughter, Ruthie Johnson and stepdaughter, Elease Johnson both died in 2006.

Final arrangements are private at the family's request.