Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Prominent Blacks Found Wealth on Other Side of Law by LaFrancine K. Burton
During different periods of American history, there were men who prospered by operating outside of the law. In Massachusetts, the legendary Kennedy family has given America a president, senators and others who played significant roles in our history. However, the foundation of that legacy was built upon wealth that was accumulated from the underhanded dealings of the patriarch, Joseph.
On a much smaller level, Moorehead, Lakeland's first African-American community, had its fair share of men who made money through illegal dealings. In the course of collecting oral data relative to Lakeland's black history, many people were people were interviewed. When asked about those on the shady side of the law in the Moorehead community, some folk mentioned "Sonny Boy" Bently, "Dubbie" Bingham, "Buddy" Bingham or "Country" Davis, but the person mentioned most often was a man called "Shanghi," and this is his story.
Elijah Jackson was born in Lakeland on Jan. 22, 1922. His parents, Amos and Essie, lived in a neighborhood called Robinson's Quarters along with 26 other black and white families. Most of the men living there were railroad workers, but Elijah's father mixed concrete (using a shovel and hoe) for a local construction company.
In those days, everything was relative to being black or white with each group having their own schools, churches and businesses within their neighborhoods. And, even though Robinson's Quarters black and white residents lived in close proximity, there was an invisible line that kept the two races separate. Elijah attended classes at the "colored" elementary school that had been established during the mid-1880s in Moorhead, and he and other black students, including his brothers James and Jimmie, walked a mile beyond the Lakeland High School on North Florida Avenue to get to the all-black Washington Park High school in the Teaspoon Hill community.
When Jackson was drafted during World War II, it proved to be a blessing in disguise. The Army not only provided him with a steady income, but while stationed on the foreign soil of England, France and Germany he experienced the exhilaration of being treated not with racial hatred but with dignity and respect.
The people of those foreign countries showed little, if any, racial prejudice toward black soldiers, but Jackson said that white soldiers brought racist attitudes across the ocean with them, and "told people that black men had long tails like monkeys." Jackson continued to witness bias in the military ranks, but nothing prepared him for seeing evidence of the Nazi's hatred of the Jewish people. "When you hear those skinheads say that the Holocaust never happened," he said, "they're lying. I saw hundreds of skeletons in mass graves. I've seen what that kind of hatred will do."
After his tour of duty ended, Elijah Jackson returned to Lakeland and found that many of the same black doctors, teachers and businesses were still here. He also found that discrimination still lingered and that the majority of his friends could find jobs only as laborers, cooks, janitors, etc. Jackson needed money, so he worked as a laborer, too, but said, "That job paid just enough to keep me and Doris [his second wife] from starving to death." He added, "When I beat off a gator trying to snatch my string of fish on Lake Hunter, I knew it was time for me to do something different."
What he did differently was to begin spending more and more time with men who had found their own successful niche for making money. Jim Crow laws excluded them from sharing the typical American dream, but they still managed to live a life of wealth and advantage (in their community) in spite of all that society denied them.
James "Buddy" Bingham, 72, remembers that his uncle was a Moorehead "big shot" who treated Jackson like a son and "took him under his wings and showed him the ropes." After a while, the 6-foot, 5-inch-tall, dark-and-handsome young man developed his own style and began to "act like he was a big shot." One day, Elijah walked into a roomful of men and, either because of his cocky attitude or his imposing figure, one of them yelled out, "Here comes Shanghi," and the name stuck.
Shanghi did not operate on the sunny side of the law, and there are those who may scoff at the way he made money. Yet, if we look at today's legitimate activities and compare them to activities of days gone by, we will find them remarkably similar. Our most popular gambling game of today is nothing more than an electronic version of yesteryear's Bolita. The "numbers racket," as Bolita was often called, garnered profits from bets made on numbers. Today's Lotto provides revenue for the state of Florida, the business that sold the winning ticket and for the winning ticket holder. Bolita, which was likewise popular, profited the "banker," the "numbers writer" and the winner who "hit the number."
Years ago, men slipped through the back door of a local neighborhood gambling house, whereas today, very respectable citizens board tour buses and travel to gambling casinos in Biloxi, Miss., or New Orleans.
In Shanghi's case, he profited most from being the "houseman." As such, he was the person who provided a place for the poker and "skin" games, and got to "cut the pot" (took a percentage of the bets). It was also the duty of the houseman to keep the games "clean" (prevent cheating) and settle arguments.
Today's liquor stores sell all brands and types of alcoholic beverages to our most prominent citizens, yet there was a time in Polk County's history when the sale of alcohol was illegal. There were moonshiners who made and sold their own whiskey, but there were others who took a five-minute drive to the Cedar Tavern immediately after crossing the Hillsborough County Line and bought as much liquor as they wanted. However, once they made a step back into Polk County with the beverage, they were breaking the law. Earlier generations knew the men who made these journeys, and regularly knocked on their doors to purchase a bottle of a favorite brew.
Though Shanghi was involved in these illegal activities, his Black-Tan Garden and Grill on Moorehead's Lime Street was a very legitimate business, and he was the consummate businessman. He was a diehard jazz lover, but with the help of Randy, a disc jockey and record salesman out of Nashville, Tenn., and Lakeland's Johnny Reb, country-western promoter and record-shop owner, he kept the latest rhythm-and-blues records on the jukebox for his customer's enjoyment. And he prided himself in keeping a ready supply of his regular customers' foods, snacks, sodas, cigarettes and beer. His jook joint was a place where black people would get dressed up and go to socialize, hear good music, get a snack and dance the night away.
He made quite a bit of money, but dared not deposit large sums of it in the bank because there was the risk of the funds being confiscated if someone questioned its origin. He followed the habits of other high-living people who had ill-gotten money by stashing most of it in a metal safe inside his home and "wearing" the rest. Befitting a man with newly acquired wealth, Shanghi dressed in expensive clothes, wore huge diamond rings and spent a small fortune in getting his teeth capped with gold, which at that time was viewed as a symbol of wealth.
He had a certain charisma, along with some money, that got him inside the doors of organizations that normally would not have accepted someone of his character. A few respected leaders in the community came to him and suggested that Jackson could attain a different level of respectability by becoming a Mason, which he did. According to LouElla Jackson, his third wife, of 31 years, "He was working toward the 33rd degree, but quit the lodge because he felt that a couple of members were using the brotherhood to get money from him."
He pulled another rabbit out of the hat when he became the first black in Central Florida to become a member of the exclusive Playboy Club. Jackson recalled, "When I went to the clubs in Miami and Jacksonville, I was the only Negro there wearing a Playboy jacket." Blacks also marveled at the fact that Shanghi, who had just a 10th-grade education, paid cash for his cars, and loaned money to black doctors and teachers who were earning far less than he.
Shanghi readily gave advice to young black children such as Charlie Frank Haynes, 62, who said: "When I was young, Shanghi talked to me all the time -- trying to teach me about life. He told me that he read all kinds of books, and if he couldn't find what he wanted to know, he wasn't too proud to ask somebody who did know." Haynes, a disabled Vietnam vet, proudly recalled "Shanghi gave me a $300 watch and told me that, even though I was black, I could make it in this world. I loved the man."
Not only did he help others, but Shangi also took care of his own. His elderly parents worked hard all of their lives but had very little money to show for it. Shanghi changed that status as his daughter watched him count out $10,000 in cash, which his mother and father divided equally. Today, this may not seem like a lot of money, but at the time of that gift, Shanghi's father received less than $100 in Social Security and his mother earned $1 an hour working as a maid.
Though other good qualities were mentioned, Shanghi is also remembered for having a mean streak. Many of his actions cannot be justified except to say that while operating within his environment, it was sometimes necessary to introduce his ever present .38-caliber pistol to an out-of-town card shark who was caught cheating, or, as he said, "somebody who disrespected my customers or my business."
According to a map once published in The Ledger, Polk County has had many African-American communities: Moorehead, Teaspoon Hill, Florence Villa, Gordanville, Oakland, Jamestown, Tripoli, Bethel, Brittsville, Pierce, Bradley, Brewster and Villa Park. (Ragtown in Carter's Corner disappeared by 1915.) In order for such neighborhoods to survive, there was someone who kept their fingers on the pulse of their community, and Jackson was one such person. He knew about whatever happened in his neighborhood, and because he profited from the community, he understood the benefits of giving something back to it. For example, the late Marion Barnes, Moorehead Elementary School principal and a close friend of Shanghi's, reportedly explained, "When little Katherine Jumper was hit and killed by a car, Shanghi was the first person to give money toward her funeral."
Finally, Shanghi is remembered for having developed a unique rapport with local whites. He crossed certain racial barriers and won the cooperation of prominent citizens -- especially during the 1950s and 1960s. It was a well-known fact that some of our earlier officials, as well as white businessmen and businesswomen, were regular patrons of Shanghi's. It was speculated that he escaped many of the gambling raids because "he had some of the cops in his back pocket." This rumor was fueled when he purchased a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle and later a fishing boat that "ended up in the hands of two white officers."
In 1971, when notified of the impending doom of his beloved Moorehead, Shanghi and wife, LouElla, paid cash for a two-story house on the other side of town and became the first African Americans to live on their block. He "dabbled" in the Bolita business until the advent of Lotto, after which time he retired and began learning the art of growing orchids.
Sadly, as the years passed, age and declining health proved to be Shanghi's demon. Glaucoma began to limit his vision and he suffered bouts of severe depression. After diabetes finally blinded him, he became bitter and, over time, alienated his family and banished many of his longtime friends.
In the months before his death April 20 from cancer at age 81, I visited Shanghi at the nursing home almost daily and was allowed to record details of his truly remarkable life. Though money, jewelry and clothes had been a vital part of Shanghi's persona, he gave it all away and simply mentioned those who benefit from his generosity. More than once, he reminded me to live my life to the fullest, because, he said, "You come in the world with nothing, and you leave with nothing."
Not once during my visits did Shanghi offer an apology for the way he lived his life, so neither shall I. However, Elijah Jackson tearfully admitted that he was sorry for some of the things he had done, and I forgave him. After all, he was my Daddy.
LaFrancine K. Burton of Lakeland -- an area supervisor for Fellowship Dining, a division of the Polk County Department of Human Services -- researches the history of African Americans in Lakeland.
Note: This article first appeared in the May 3, 2003 edition of The Ledger Under The Title, " A Few Prominent Lakeland Blacks Found Wealth on Other Side of Law"
Wednesday, May 28, 2003