NOVEMBER 13, 1968. 370 BLUE HILL AVENUE. OFFICE OF N.E.G.R.O. (NEW ENGLAND GRASS ROOTS ORGANIZATION).
It was 3:45 a.m. but the small Civil Rights office was full, with five men speaking of plans for the future. The next day, the first installment in an almost two million dollar government contract was expected to arrive. But Guido St. Laurent, the blind man who led the activist storefront from obscurity to Civil Rights prominence, could feel uncertainty in the voices of the men in his office.
The tension could have been due to the three men expected to arrive; a crew of infamous gangsters looking for a piece of the $1.9 million grant. Tonight, the Campbell Brothers, the crime bosses of Roxbury, would try to muscle in on the Civil Rights movement. St. Laurent and the other men in the basement were no strangers to crime, though—except for Ronald King, an anti-poverty worker from Cleveland, each man there had a criminal record.
In particular, St. Laurent and his longtime friend Carnell Eaton had risen to black power prominence after stints in prison. In 1956 the two men robbed the office of a Mission Hill housing project, entering with handkerchiefs covering the lower half of their faces. They tied up six people and St. Laurent hit one in the back of the head before they emptied a vault of $1,085. St. Laurent was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison and Eaton 10 to 12 years.
Official prison reports say St. Laurent was blinded when a barbell slipped from his grip and hit him on the head, irreparably damaging his eyes. Other reports indicated rival inmates may have been involved.
St. Laurent later counted his blinding as a positive event—a turning point.
“It wasn’t until I was blinded that I began to see,”
he said, explaining that he would have probably spent the rest of his life in and out of prisons if the blinding had not made him think about ways to use his skills constructively.
In 1963 St. Laurent was released from prison. Two years later, he opened the small storefront office on Blue Hill Avenue and named it N.E.G.R.O. for New England Grass Roots Organization. He described it as a public relations office for Boston’s black neighborhoods “to let the world know about the people in the black community doing the little things that never get attention from the press because they aren’t sensational.”
Equipped only with a few telephones, St. Laurent set up contacts with the press and publicized small, positive activities such as a group of teens building their own recreation lounge and mothers campaigning for a stoplight. He held job forums to publicize the “10 mile gap” between employers and Boston’s black neighborhoods and the lack of transportation that contributed to urban unemployment. He kept the office open 24 hours a day and quickly built a reputation as a local leader to watch.
His old crime partner, Carnell Eaton, was also pivotal in St. Laurent’s development as a Civil Rights figure. Sarah Ann Shaw, a Civil Rights activist who would go on to become the first black woman to work as a television news reporter in Boston, says it was probably Eaton who first brought St. Laurent into the movement.
After his release from prison, Eaton was a reliable member of Boston’s grassroots activism community. In one campaign, Eaton worked with the Boston Action Group to demand that Wonderbread and Hood Milk hire local black drivers. After marches and calls to boycott, Eaton was hired at Hood.
“Carnell was very outspoken,” Shaw says. “He said what he wanted to say when he wanted to say it. He was very pro-black, very much for the community.”
THE RIOT THAT WASN’T
The high point of N.E.G.R.O.’s leadership came in April 1968 when St. Laurent and Eaton helped keep Boston streets safe after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. St. Laurent had operated citizen band radios as a hobby after his blinding—experience that would come in handy as Boston threatened to burn.
The morning after King’s death, Washington Street and Blue Hill Avenue—the black community’s two principal thoroughfares—were pocked with smashed windows and burned-out stores. A leaflet distributed by the Black United Front said flatly,
“Non-violence is dead. The Black Community Faces Disaster.”
As tensions rose, N.E.G.R.O. and St. Laurent counseled caution. He set up a radio communications network for a team of volunteers, mostly young black men and women, who had formed their own Roxbury Youth Patrol. The volunteers reported fires, kept track of crowd disturbances, transported Roxbury citizens to their homes, carried the injured to hospitals and phoned for legal help for those arrested. They also passed out leaflets that afternoon saying,
“Cool it. The riot squad has M-16 rifles-Mace-a machine so high pitched it will make you deaf. They’re not playing. Keep off the streets. Defend your home and family. Don’t start anything.”
They urged young people to stay home that night and watch James Brown perform live at the Boston Garden on local television. “Don’t go downtown brothers,” the patrol said. “Stay home. Put on the TV and watch cool James do his thing.”
N.E.G.R.O. was the central communications office for all the action. St. Laurent relayed calls from volunteers in the street to the fire and police departments. Partly as a result of his efforts, Boston began to cool off. Within days, peace had been restored with relatively mild damage to the community—21 injured, 30 arrested, barely $50,000 in damage. This was small compared with what happened in many of the 197 other towns and cities where riots broke out in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
Just a few years earlier St. Laurent was an anonymous, blind prison inmate. Now, on the night of King’s assassination, he was credited by the Boston Police Department with preventing serious outbreaks of violence in the city. However, St. Laurent would always be distrusted: by other Civil Rights figures who questioned his motives; by Boston cops who resented St. Laurent’s security patrol that observed police actions in Roxbury; and by the FBI who stepped up their surveillance of him after he stopped the riot.
On Blue Hill Avenue, even St. Laurent’s neighbors looked at N.E.G.R.O. with suspicion. The office was located on a strip of the avenue so dotted with community action groups it was known as Agency Row. By the time St. Laurent showed up in mid-1966, many of the agencies had been established in the community for a decade or more. When he was awarded a huge federal grant within two years, “The community was very suspicious about how Guido had hooked up these federal funds and we were all watching to see how this was going to work out,” said Shaw, an activist on Agency Row before her television career. “We never knew if Guido was out for the community or just out for Guido. He was very power hungry and could be very cutting in his remarks. I felt he was a bully.”
The FBI was also suspicious. As COINTELPRO, their campaign of dirty tricks against Civil Rights leaders, intensified, the feds were monitoring St. Laurent too. At least five informants were sharing information with the FBI about St. Laurent’s daily activities and meetings. “Subject [St. Laurent] described by one source as vicious and has talked in terms of mass destruction where white men are concerned,” said a confidential FBI report. One FBI informant claimed St. Laurent was collecting guns, hand grenades, nitroglycerin and holding classes to make fire bombs.
On June 8, 1968, Boston Police stopped St. Laurent’s station wagon with the vanity plate N.E.G.R.O. They found a .38 caliber revolver in the tire wheel, a bayonet under the dashboard and two machetes in the back seat. St. Laurent told police he had written permission from Mayor Kevin White to carry the weapons. The police checked with City Hall and handed the weapons back. St. Laurent went on his way.
Although Eaton and St. Laurent had grown from convicted armed robbers to well-known Civil Rights figures in the community, some tension remained. “There was always a rivalry between Carnell and Guido for who would be the one in control,” Shaw said.
On this morning, in the basement office on Blue Hill Avenue, they were unified though; if only as a defense against a more serious threat.
The men they were expecting were the notorious Campbell brothers, the crime bosses of Roxbury, and their top enforcer Dennis (Deke) Chandler.
THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS: BOSTON’S BLACK GODFATHERS
Before they ruled the Roxbury underworld, the Campbell Brothers had both been standout students at Boston Technical High School, with older brother Alvin earning a scholarship offer from Princeton University. However, he turned it down in favor of the family business of robbery—the Campbells’ father was allegedly a skilled bank robber.
“The Campbells had a reputation. They were known to carry guns,” Shaw says. “They were scary guys. If you knew them they could be nice guys; but they were scary guys.”
In 1957, the Campbells robbed a bank in Canton of $32,000. Sentenced to 25 year terms in Leavenworth Federal Prison, the brothers formed an unlikely bond with infamous gangster and notorious racist Whitey Bulger.
In Howie Carr’s Hitman, John Martorano relates what Whitey told him about his friendship with the Campbells. “[Whitey] told me later he’d been working out one day in the weight room in Leavenworth, and he heard some guys talking behind him. It was pretty obvious from their accents that they were from Boston, and when Whitey turned around he couldn’t believe they were black. It was the Campbells. They used to all walk the track together at Leavenworth, around and around and around, just talking about Boston.”
A successful appeal freed the brothers after just four years. They were released to a different world: the new ideas and reforms of the 1960s were in full swing and older brother Arnold got a job with Action for Boston Community Development. “I came from their ranks,” he said of the hardcore unemployed men he worked with, “so I could relate to them.”
When the Campbells continued carrying guns and extorting cocaine dealers their sincerity to the movement was questioned. “They were the same gangsters they always had been,” says Rodney Draffen, a drug dealer from that time. After Draffen and his brother started a small but lucrative operation they heard the Campbells were coming for a cut.
“They had back up too—that was their whole thing. They’d say, ‘If you don’t believe me I’ll get the mob to come after you and kill your family.’ And every time you turned around, someone they messed with was getting shot and killed.”
The Campbells must have noticed Roxbury had more federal money coming in than cocaine profits. The problem was St. Laurent and N.E.G.R.O. had already gained control of the $1.9 million grant. Carnell Eaton offered the Campbells jobs, in middle management. When the Campbells heard about a quick trip St. Laurent and Eaton made to New York with Ronald Hicks, Fred Rose and out of town activist Ronald King, they started to think they were missing a big payday.
Now, the Campbells were on their way to 370 Blue Hill Avenue to see St. Laurent, Eaton and the others about how to divvy up the federal money. One party not in the room but integral to the rising confrontation was federal subcontractor Woolman Systems, a mysterious defense firm that fit the term ‘poverty pimp’ better than St. Laurent or the Campbells did.
POVERTY PIMPING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The Campbells sudden political awakening was not unusual for gangsters in the 1960s. Gang leaders in major cities across the U.S. were turning street credibility into federal funding during the last, liberal days of the war on poverty. It was the era captured in Tom Wolfe’s essay “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” when known gangsters were given preference for government funding based on their criminal convictions.
“Corporations, politicians, well-meaning white liberals were all bending over backwards to show that they were not prejudiced, they weren’t racist,” says Shaw. “There was white guilt. So a lot of things got funded but they weren’t always well thought out.”
In stepped Dr. Myron Woolman—an educator looking to profit from the war on poverty. The time was right: the government was suddenly pouring millions into urban revitalization projects and profitable corporations such as oil and gas firms were competing for millions.
In May 1966 Dr. Woolman was terminated from Lincoln Jobs Corp Center for charging excessive fees for educational work not being done. Woolman was quickly retained by Northern Natural Gas, also chasing anti-poverty money.
With the hiring of Woolman and connections in the Department of Labor and other federal agencies, Northern Gas was poised to implement a program in Roxbury to net them millions. That is, until Guido St. Laurent and NEGRO got in the way.
According to FBI reports, “NEGRO set out to stir up the community against an outsider like Northern coming into Roxbury and called instead for a local group like NEGRO to run the program.”
Dr. Woolman saw a solution, however. He left Northern and approached St. Laurent with a deal to operate jointly, FBI documents reveal. Woolman formed Woolman Systems and won a $1.9 million grant from the Department of Labor.
From the beginning, Woolman and St. Laurent plundered it. St. Laurent and another activist named Fred Rose formed a for-profit venture that hoped to obtain $147,000 from the grant. On Nov. 12, Woolman hosted St. Laurent, Eaton, Rose, Ronald Hicks and King in New York City. They discussed how to divide the money and, in the case of King who was from Cleveland, how to expand their program to other cities.
Woolman had fought for the grant, even betrayed his original partner to team up with St. Laurent. Now, the multimillion dollar reward was near. It was Woolman, with some help from the Department of Labor, who put into motion these events. But he would not be in the Roxbury basement the next morning when it all came to a fatal tipping point.
On that Nov. 13 morning the only regulators taking a close look at the grant money was the Campbell Brothers gang. According to Fred Rose, a St. Laurent ally who survived the attack, the Campbells and Deke Chandler entered the headquarters and after pushing a gun into the face of Eaton made their way into the back office.
Rose later testified in court: “At one point one of the Campbell brothers, I think it was Arnold, pushed me into a chair. After I was in the chair I saw everyone had a gun in his hand. Carnell was standing in the middle of the floor saying ‘What’s this? What’s this?’
“Alvin then slugged Guido St. Laurent and the gun discharged. Arnold Campbell was standing over on the other side of the room and he slugged Ron Hicks. I hear Guido saying, ‘Don’t do that. I have a plate in my head.’ Next I heard someone say: ‘You won’t feel it long baby.’ Then Guido was shot in the chest.”
Unluckiest of all may have been Ronald King, the only one in the basement without a criminal conviction. “Hey what’s going on?” he asked the killers as they rushed him. “I just got here from Cleveland.”
“Sorry, cuz, you should have stayed in Cleveland,” one of the killers replied and shot him in the head.
Fred Rose and Ronald Hicks were shot but managed to survive. St. Laurent, Eaton and King each died. “No one was supposed to be left alive, that’s for sure” said a Boston Police detective investigating the incident.
“This wasn’t a case of an emotional outburst. It was simply a cold-blooded killing.”
The triple murder was a shock to local activists and St. Laurent supporters mourned the loss of his leadership. “He was a man in the process of becoming,” said one friend. “Tomorrow was his permanent address.”
The murders also brought scrutiny to the manpower program. Little had been done; five months after the money was released only twelve men were enrolled. Woolman had announced each graduate would receive a job from local companies who pledged their support. In reality, the companies were only compelled to hire 40 of the 500 graduates.
The $1.9 million grant to train 500 hardcore unemployed men was canceled.
To continue reading the Campbell Brothers saga—including their quest to take over Boston’s cocaine trade—buy Gangsters of Boston on Amazon. George Hassett will be reading from Gangsters of Boston and presenting a multimedia slideshow on the history of organized crime in Boston at The Book Shop in Ball Square, Somerville June 19.