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Our Rich History: “Numbers King” Melvin Clark and African American racketeers in Newport

By Chad Huggins Dunbar
Special to NKyTribune

Part 58 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Newport’s “Sin City” image, from the days of Prohibition until reform in the 1960s, was well known nationwide. During Prohibition, speakeasies abounded, and after its repeal, illegal gambling, prostitution, and other vices continued unabated. As stereotyped in films and books, mobsters were generally depicted as tough-talking, machine-gun-toting Italian Mafioso. In reality, however, the crime syndicates were much more diverse. In Newport, Italian, Jewish, and Black mobsters all played prominent roles in the city’s entertainment venues. In last week’s article, we introduced you to the African-American Payne Brothers. This week, you’ll meet Black racketeer, Melvin Clark.

Melvin Edward “Mel” Clark was born on October 14, 1914 to William Derdearses and Mattie Ceola Watson Clark, at their home at 216 North Grant Avenue in Columbus, Ohio (Death Certificate for Melvin Clark, July 18, 1955, File No. 116 55-13059; Certificate of Birth for Melvin Edward Clark, 1914). By the age of thirteen, in 1927, Melvin Clark’s criminal record began. He, along with eight other African American males between the ages of twelve and fifteen, were rounded up for questioning by Columbus police officers. The police were reacting to “a deluge of complaints during the past month” brought on by a string of robberies (“Arrests Smash Robbery Clique,” Columbus Dispatch, December 28, 1927, p. 10). After being arrested on Tuesday, December 27, 1927, a series of interrogations ultimately led to the convictions of Melvin Clark and a fellow juvenile to Lancaster Boys’ Industrial School (a reform school located in an adjacent county).

Following release from the school, Clark was arrested again in August 1930, for petit larceny (petty theft), a first degree misdemeanor, and sentenced to a nine-month return to Lancaster Boys’ Industrial School. Other arrests continued throughout the 1930s for a series of offenses, including auto theft, petit larceny, and operating an illegal untaxed liquor still while manufacturing moonshine whiskey. By 1938-39, Clark had entered the numbers racket in Columbus (“Long Police Record Traced For Witness In Tax Court,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 30, 1954, p. 12; “Big Shot Number Baron Killed in Gun Duel: Numbers King Dies in Battle with Competitor,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 30, 1955, p. 3; “Numbers Racketeer ‘King’ Slain in Newport Gun Duel: Killing Explodes Gang War,” Kentucky Times-Star, July 19, 1955, Bluegrass Final ed., pp. 1, 5).

A strikingly handsome man, with a fashion sense that was both upscale and attention-grabbing, Clark was also ambitious. Looking for opportunities to expand his operations, he joined mobster Steven Payne as co-owner of profitable African American casino bars in Newport during the 1940s, including the 222 Club, Congo Club, Copa Club, Rocket Club, and Varga Club. In March 1948, Payne died, the victim of an unsolved murder.

Meanwhile, Clark eventually became the successor of Percy L. Williams as the “Numbers King” of the Black community, heavily controlling the numbers racket of the Greater Cincinnati area (“Newport Club Manager Killed, Suspect Held,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 14, 1952, Morning ed., p. 1).

In 1949, Melvin Clark was interrogated by police in connection with the bombing of a bootlegging distillery concealed within a residential home in Xenia, Ohio. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949, a house located at 323 East Market Street was heavily damaged by a dynamite explosion on the front porch at roughly 3:00 a.m. The blast opened a hole in the front wall, shattered windows on both sides of the 300-block, and woke the neighborhood. The house, located only three blocks from City Hall, belonged to Earl Artis, a white bootlegger who was also allegedly involved in the numbers racket. All of the occupants of the home that night escaped injury, including Artis, his family, and a young boy from the neighborhood (“Two Arrests May Solve Bombing of Artis’ Home: Nab Cleveland and Cincinnati Men for Xenia Easter Blast,” The Evening Gazette, December 6, 1949, pp. 1, 2)

Although there were no eyewitnesses, the Xenia and Greene County police attempted to connect the bombing to two African-American mobsters: Melvin Clark of Cincinnati, Ohio and Arthur “Little Brother” Drake of Cleveland. Drake was a well-known policy racket extortionist in the Cleveland area, connected to Willie Hoge of the Hoge Brothers. Both Drake and Hoge had been convicted and served time for trying to strong-arm their way into clearinghouse operations in Cleveland’s underworld.

During its October 1949 term, a grand jury was presented with a transcript from the docket of the Greene County Court of Public Pleas in preparation for an indictment hearing. After convening in a secretly-held special session on Thursday, December 1, 1949, a grand jury voted to indict Melvin Clark and Arthur Drake on two separate indictments: the first consisting of one count of unlawful possession of an explosive as well as one count of illegal use of an explosive, and, the second indictment for malicious destruction of property (The State of Ohio vs. Melvin Clark & Arthur Drake, 1949).

On Monday, December 5, 1949, Clark was arrested by the Cincinnati police in the suburb of Lincoln Heights and was transported to Xenia to face arraignment the next morning. The subsequent trial was held in 1950. Lacking witnesses to the execution of the crime, the case against Clark and Drake mainly relied on bomb fragment analysis, prior charges and convictions, circumstantial evidence, and conflicting rumors. Various Ohio investigators from Xenia, Cleveland, Dayton, Hamilton, and Cincinnati shared information and conspiracy theories about the Black-dominated numbers racket, with Melvin Clark a common thread in the underworld machinations of each city. However, many of these theories contradicted each other, or often combined to paint an implausible picture.

On Tuesday, April 18, 1950, a joint operation by Newport detectives and the Campbell County Police raided a house at 423 West Sixth Street that was allegedly “used in connection with the Cincinnati operation of the policy racket” by Melvin Clark and William “Bill” Davis, along with two other men. However, the search turned up no evidence of gambling, with the resident of the house as the only person present at the time of the raid. That same year, Clark was also arrested on charges of assault and battery, but was ultimately acquitted (“Evidence Lacking In Newport Raid,” Kentucky Times-Star, April 19, 1950, p. 3).

The year of 1951 would see an escalation in criminal charges and court activity for Melvin Clark. He was arrested in Cincinnati for a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, and fined $25 with court costs. On a positive note for Clark, after three court terms with no substantive action by the State of Ohio in the Xenia bombing case, he filed a motion for dismissal of charges on March 16, 1951. Three days later, the judge upheld his motion and dismissed all charges against him. The sense of relief he no doubt experienced from this favorable resolution to the Xenia bombing case would prove to be short-lived and soon overshadowed by new problems.

In October 1951, Melvin Clark was involved in an accidental car wreck on Gilbert Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio, that killed the driver of the other vehicle and resulted in a manslaughter charge for Clark. However, he managed to beat the manslaughter charge and was acquitted that same year. The following month, Melvin Clark and his wife Jessie were also fighting a federal Internal Revenue Service tax lien of $184,712 in Cincinnati for non-payment of income tax on gambling profits from 1948 through 1950.

The 1952 edition of Williams’ Cincinnati City Directory lists Melvin and Jessie Clark as residing in their house at 822 Oak Street in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati. Melvin was also described as a “restauranteur” by trade. Percy L. Williams, his predecessor as the “Numbers King” of Greater Cincinnati’s Black communities and fellow Cleveland Syndicate affiliate, was residing at 1352 William Howard Taft Road that same year.

On January 13, 1952, Melvin Clark was arrested in Cincinnati, on a fugitive from justice warrant, for the willful murder of his former associate and brother of Steven Payne, Oliver “Bull” Payne, who had recently switched sides and had begun working for Clark’s archrival, Frank “Screw” Andrews. The shooting took place at Club Alibi, a small casino club in Newport that Melvin Clark had co-owned with Steve Payne, and later, Oliver Payne.

Before the incident, the professional relationship between Clark and Payne had been increasingly strained, leading up to the shoot-out, due in part to Payne owing a large loan debt to Clark, as well as a growing divergence of their goals and interests in the numbers racket of the Greater Cincinnati area. Fleeing the scene following the shooting, Clark later surrendered that same night to detectives at the Newport police headquarters. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Daniel W. Davies, who had recently been arrested himself for interfering with a police raid on the Merchant Club casino on East Fourth Street.

Melvin Clark was charged with willful murder in Campbell County Circuit Court in Newport, with Judge Ray L. Murphy presiding over the case. He was released a month later on a $5,000 bond (Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Melvin Clark, 1952-1953; “Newport Club Manager Killed, Suspect Held,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 14, 1952, Morning ed., p. 1; “Defense Calls State Witness In Slaying Trial at Newport; GI Tells of Payne Shooting,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 27, 1952, p. 6; “Slaying May Have Racket Background: Former Numbers Operator Held in Killing of Newport Club Owner,” Kentucky Times-Star, January 14, 1952, Home ed., pp. 1, 19).

During the trial, Melvin Clark’s attorneys were Daniel W. Davies and Thomas Hirschfield, who often represented the legal interests of the local gambling industry and also served as the directors of the Merchants’ Civic Foundation, which made donations to local philanthropic causes. On the fourth day of the trial, April 26, 1952, the defense team shocked the court by calling as a witness Private Johnnie Lane, a 21-year-old army soldier stationed at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, who had been at the club the night of the shooting and had also worked as a bartender in Club Alibi before Oliver Payne had demoted him.

Private Lane was originally supposed to have served as a witness for the prosecution, as Commonwealth Attorney William J. Wise had personally transported him from Pennsylvania in order to testify in the case. However, the defense called him first and the testimony was so damaging for the prosecution that the Commonwealth Attorney didn’t call him back to the stand for the remainder of the trial. Lane testified that Oliver Payne had fired two shots first, his gun jamming thereafter, while Melvin Clark drew his gun and fired four or five shots at Payne (Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Melvin Clark, 1952-1953).

On April 29, 1952, after a long trial, the jury found Melvin Clark not guilty on grounds of self-defense. However, the prosecutor quickly filed another charge (of carrying a concealed weapon) against Clark, for which he was arrested by the Cincinnati police on a “fugitive from justice” warrant on Monday, May 19, 1952. Melvin Clark’s defense attorney for this case was Gordon Wilson, who refused to waive extradition and filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging Clark’s detention by the Cincinnati Police. The following day, Judge Louis J. Schneider of Hamilton County Criminal Court denied the defense’s motions and later ordered Clark to return to Newport to face arraignment (“Court Denies Writ of Habeas Corpus For Melvin Clark,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 21, 1952, p. 14).

The charge filed against Melvin Clark was eventually dismissed, due to procedural errors, before being re-filed in February 1953. This time, Clark initially pled not guilty after waiving formal arraignment before subsequently changing his plea to guilty. He was given a sentence of 40 days in the county jail, a $100 fine, and one year of probation (Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Melvin Clark 1952-1953, pp. 326, 335-336, 360).

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the death of Oliver Payne led to Melvin Clark gaining the upper hand in the numbers racket despite his temporary banishment from Newport. This narrative is corroborated by a 1955 front-page news article from the Kentucky Post, which names Clark as “the top figure in the numbers racket for many years” (“ ‘Numbers King’ Is Killed in Newport Duel: Death Dealt to Melvin Clark in Alley Battle With ‘Screw’ Andrews.” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1; “Racket Figure Shot Down: Andrews Held in Slaying Of Melvin Clark,” Kentucky Post, July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1).

In fact, Clark had run numbers rackets in Columbus, Cleveland, Xenia, and Dayton (Ohio) before he came to Cincinnati or Newport, and during his exile from Newport he refocused on those markets. He also bought a controlling share of the Cincinnati Leader, an African-American newspaper, which increased his profitability in the number racket. Since Clark had always used the United States stock market and bond market totals as his winning numbers, he made money from both the sales of numbers slips as well as the newspapers that contained the daily winning numbers. He seized control of the newspaper from its founder and editor-in-chief, William Clay Brown, who had launched the paper in 1952, and promoted another editor to replace him in late 1953. However, Clark’s control of the periodical would be short-lived, as the Cincinnati Leader ceased publication sometime in 1954. By this time, the Cincinnati police estimated that Clark dominated 95% of the numbers racket in the city’s West End (Mae Najiyyah Duncan, A Survey of Cincinnati’s Black Press & its Editors 1844 – 2010. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2011).

Shortly after pleading guilty to carrying a concealed and deadly weapon, Melvin Clark moved back to Columbus during his probation, which required that he stay out of Newport for its duration. Melvin Clark returned to Newport in 1954, establishing the Coconut Grove Café casino bar (located at Fifth and Patterson Streets), to compete with Italian-American mobster Frank Andrews’ nightclubs, which had expanded during Clark’s absence. The 1954-1955 edition of Williams’ Newport City Directory listed the Coconut Grove Café as located at 501 Patterson Street and managed by William Davis, Melvin’s right-hand man in Northern Kentucky. Upon his return, Clark also took a more direct control of his other remaining venues, including the Congo Club and the Copa Club (the latter of which was located at 333 Central Avenue and managed by Clarence J. Hall). However, it took very little time for the danger and violence of Newport’s volatile underworld to find its way into Melvin Clark’s casino clubs once more ((“Racket Figure Shot Down: Andrews Held In Slaying Of Melvin Clark,” Kentucky Post July 19, 1955, Final ed., p. 1).

Continued next week

Chad Huggins Dunbar is a graduate of the MA in Public History Program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He resides in Louisville, Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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One Comment

  1. Congratulations Chad on these well written and interesting articles which bring little known history back to us. Chad generously donated copies of some of the documents he found during his research to the NKU Special Collections and University Archives. Thank-you for your contribution to preserving the region’s history.