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Our Rich History: African Americans, gambling and the Payne Brothers, part of Newport’s Sin City era

By Chad Huggins Dunbar
Special to NKyTribune

Part 57 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

While there are many books, films, articles, and other scholarly works detailing the story and legacy of Newport’s organized criminal underworld during the Sin City era (Prohibition through the 1960s), far less attention has been paid to the role of African-American mobsters than their Caucasian counterparts.

In most published sources, Black mobsters go unmentioned. When they are referenced, they are usually relegated to a few quick sentences as one-dimensional side characters in the story of a non-Black mobster. This pattern of scholarly neglect can easily be seen in the often-brief descriptions of the Payne brothers and Melvin Clark, who are usually only mentioned passingly in the telling of Frank “Screw” Andrews’ historical narrative.

Club Alibi, 310 Central Avenue, Newport, KY. Courtesy of NKy Views

During the early years of Prohibition, Kentucky produced a vast amount of the alcohol that supplied an array of organized crime syndicates, including those of Al Capone, Dutch Schultz and Meyer Lansky. The Cleveland Syndicate, led by Moe Dalitz and dominated by an alliance between Detroit’s Jewish Purple Gang and Cleveland’s Italian Mayfield Road Gang, initially carved out their empire by smuggling alcohol from Canada into the United States during Prohibition and prioritizing bottom-line profits over loyalties based on ethnicity.

The Chicago Outfit, an Italian-dominated criminal organization led by Al Capone, was also heavily involved in alcohol bootlegging operations throughout the Midwest (including the metropolitan Cincinnati area). It tempered its public image by operating soup kitchens for the poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s, to offset its well-earned reputation for extreme acts of violence.

The New York Mafia, a criminal cabal initially dominated by Sicilian immigrants, was eventually unified under Lucky Luciano in 1931, who adopted a philosophy similar to the Cleveland Syndicate—opening its membership to non-Italians and putting profits before ethnicity. As a result, the organization’s power and influence surged so dramatically that by 1935, the New York Mafia outpaced many leading American industries in terms of profits.

All of these criminal organizations held interests and aspirations in Newport’s booming entertainment district, which offered plenty of opportunities in gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, numbers, and racketeering.

This 1950 map of Newport, Kentucky, shows the locations of Club Alibi and the Sportsman’s Club, as added by Paul A. Tenkotte. Club Alibi was situated at 310 Central Avenue. The Sportsman’s Club was located in the several connected buildings at 328-330 Central Avenue, on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and West Southgate Alley. The entire area was later demolished for a federal housing project, which in turn was torn down for commercial redevelopment. Source: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Newport, Kentucky, 1910 (updated and republished, September 1950), Image 2. Library of Congress,

Northern Kentucky’s Black mobsters were excluded from many of the avenues and benefits of capitalization by restrictive Jim Crow laws, which separated the races, denying African Americans certain levels of access to mainstream society and its financial systems. These unjust and repressive laws were in place until a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions during the 1950s and 1960s, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, invalidated most of them through judicial review and legislation. After that, de facto (by custom) segregation replaced the de jure (by law) segregation of the Jim Crow era.

During the Jim Crow Era, it was illegal in Kentucky for Blacks to build homes or businesses in predominately white areas, to rent apartments from whites, to attend white schools, or to even buy circus tickets from the same ticket offices as whites, among other restrictions. Additionally, the regional mainstream newspapers routinely made it a point to demarcate the racial identities of Black mobsters, by labeling them as “Negroes,” while no similar level of systematic efforts were taken to point out the racial or ethnic identities of non-Black mobsters.

The Sportsmen were a prominent Black organized gang in Newport that saw the pinnacle of its power and influence during the 1940s, but whose origins stretched back to the late 1920s and extended into the 1950s. The Sportsman’s Club, a popular nightclub and casino bar in Newport’s Black community, derived its name from this very gang, who established it in the 1940s.

The Sportsmen, at the height of their infamy, were led by Steven “Big Steve” L. Payne, whose brothers began dabbling in petty organized crime in the late 1920s. The Payne brothers were all born in Newport to Larken Payne Sr. of Virginia (born 1872) and Ollie Jackson of Mayslick, Kentucky (born 1886). They included John Payne (born 1908), Charles N. Payne (born 1910), Steven L. Payne (born February 15, 1914), Larken Payne Jr. (born 1915), and Oliver P. Payne (born May 18, 1916). All of them, except for John, had extensive criminal records related to organized crime, which began to accumulate in the late 1920s as they came of age. John Payne (who worked primarily as a singer) and his wife had criminal records themselves, but these were mostly related to their frequent domestic fights.

Late in the evening of Thursday, May 15, 1947, Steve Payne was arrested during a surprise raid jointly conducted by the Campbell County Police and the Cincinnati Vice Squad on the Sportsman’s Club in Newport. The gang was in the midst of counting profits from their “numbers” (illegal lottery) operation. Payne, joined by Nathan Doddy, Bunesha Davis, Judson Williams, and Marshall Slaughter, were charged with operating an illegal lottery. That charge carried a maximum sentence on 2-5 years’ imprisonment and a $500-$5,000 fine. However, they were quickly released on a combined total bond of $3,000. Among the confiscated items were over 100,000 policy slips (lottery ticket receipts), 5 cartons of unused policy slips, 2 adding machines, a typewriter, a mimeograph machine, a file cabinet, and $650.15 in cash. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, police described the raid as “big-time operators in small-time stuff,” due to the low amount of cash seized and that the individual numbers bets ranged from a mere 1¢ to only $3.00 each. However, this statement also demonstrates that the Sportsmen gang was far more established in other types of organized crime in Newport prior to their foray into the numbers racket (“Newport Policy Raid Nets Six Persons,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 15, 1947, Ky. ed., p. 1).

Frank “Screw” Andrews, 1962; Courtesy of the Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

The raid was based on a tip received by Sgt. Russell Jones of the Cincinnati Vice Squad from a credible source that supposedly originated in Cincinnati. However, historians Matthew DeMichele and Gary Potter assert that the tip came from Italian-American mobster and local New York affiliate Frank “Screw” Andrews, who was then focused on muscling his way into the Black-owned casinos and number rackets. They also argue that “a well-placed bribe” was instrumental in convincing the police to raid the Sportsman’s Club.

The Kentucky Times-Star, quoting Sgt. Jones, reported that the numbers operation at the Sportsman’s Club had only been underway since April and was relatively new to the scene. Furthermore, Andrews cleverly embedded details in the police tip that made it appear that either Percy L. Williams or Melvin Edwards Clark, prominent Black kingpins of Cincinnati’s number rackets, were the real source of the tip. This tactic simultaneously deflected suspicions away from Andrews and other gangsters backed by the New York mafia, while sowing the seeds of distrust and animosity between the area’s African-American mobsters (“Six Are Nabbed in Policy Slip Raid: Five Are Indicted.” Kentucky Times-Star, May 15, 1947, p. 1).

The court case stretched on until November 1947, ending with Steve Payne being found not guilty, despite being caught red-handed, and his accomplices having their charges reduced to unlawful assembly, to which they pled guilty and received a small fine of $50 each. While Steven Payne and the Sportsmen had beaten the case brought against them in Kentucky, the Newport Police had shared the gang’s casino ledger book (seized during the raid) with Special Agent Donald D. Drake of the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s Intelligence Unit in Cincinnati. Drake was building a separate case against Steve Payne that would ultimately put him behind bars once again.

However, Steve Payne wouldn’t spend much time behind bars despite the airtight evidence, and was back on the streets before March 23, 1948, when his body was found in a roadside ditch obscured by weeds on Kyles Lane in Covington. A passing motorist discovered Payne’s body at around 7 a.m. in front of the Kenton County Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Payne had received bullet wounds to the head and chest from a .45 ACP caliber pistol roughly four hours before he was discovered. The body was later identified by his older brother, Charles Payne. Despite his death being ruled as a homicide on both the coroner’s report and his death certificate, no autopsy was ever performed. Police theorized that Payne had been picked up in a car at his home in Cincinnati, shot behind the ear from somebody next to him inside the vehicle, then subsequently shot twice in the torso, after which his body was dropped off in Covington.

Steve Payne’s murder case was never solved. He died at the young age of 34, already divorced, and living with his family at 415 West Sixth Street in Newport. Six days later, he was buried in Section 43-B (grave 901-A) at Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate after his funeral at C.E. Jones Funeral Home on 633 Scott Street in Covington.

Frank “Screw” Andrews, the Alibi Club, and Melvin Clark

After the death of Steve Payne, the Sportsman’s Club passed into the control of the Newport Redevelopment Authority, which then sold the property to Irvin “Nig” Divine, an associate of New York mobster Mike Coppola, who in turn transferred the title to Frank “Screw” Andrews. Andrews used the Sportsman’s Club as the base of operations for his expanding numbers and casino rackets.

Frank “Screw” Andrews (born Frank Andriello) was an Italian-American mobster affiliate of both the New York mafia and Cleveland Syndicate in the Greater Cincinnati area. He was active in the local organized crime scene from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Andrews began his criminal career as a small-time moonshiner in Cincinnati’s suburbs before gradually expanding into the numbers racket (illegal lottery) in the Black community during the 1940s.

Joined by his brother “Spider” and his nephew “Junior,” Andrews had built a small conglomeration of liquor stores and newspaper stands across Newport by the mid-1940s, which gave him a base from which to expand his numbers racket. However, the expansion of business did not come without its own risks and perils. Shortly into his foray into Newport’s underworld, Andrews had served time in prison for running an illegal lottery racket in 1944 and operating a Ponzi scheme in 1946, before eventually being paroled in 1947. Upon his release, he began to shift his focus to Newport’s Black casino nightclubs while picking up a disorderly conduct charge in 1948.

During the closure of the Sportsman’s Club, Steve Payne’s younger brother, Oliver “Bull” P. Payne, became the manager of the Alibi Club, an African-American casino bar that was located at 310 Central Avenue in Newport and owned by Black mobster Melvin Clark since the 1940s. Oliver’s employment at the Alibi Club triggered a string of altercations with both the law and the underworld of Newport, eventually leading to his death.

On April 2, 1950, Oliver Payne was arrested in Newport on a charge of concealed carrying of a deadly weapon. His $2,500 bail was posted by Campbell Murphy, of 119 Central Avenue in Newport, on April 6th. Oliver eventually pled guilty, paying a fine of $100 and court costs on May 22nd. Almost a year later, in March 1951, he was arrested for operating his bar past the 2:00 a.m. cut-off limit, in violation of the local liquor ordinance.

Five months later, on August 19, 1951, Oliver “Bull” Payne was arrested in a Newport Police raid on the Alibi Club and slapped with three charges of operating illegal slot machines. He fought all three charges and managed to be acquitted of one charge in November of that same year, but the remaining two charges continued to haunt him until three months after his death, when they were finally dismissed by Judge Ray L. Murphy in March of the following year.

In October 1951, Oliver Payne was charged with the malicious shooting of a Cincinnati African-American bar patron at Club Alibi, but was found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. That same year, he walked into an open meeting of the Newport City Commissioners and publicly denounced them before threatening to open up more casinos closer to City Hall, even boasting that he would put them only blocks away on Monmouth Street.

Meanwhile, a series of developments in Newport’s underworld created growing animosities between some of its major players. “Screw” Andrews had recently managed to wrestle control of the Alibi Club away from Melvin Clark. Clark had been a rival of Frank Andrews ever since Andrews began muscling his way into African-American casino nightclub and numbers rackets.

At 5:50 a.m. on January 13, 1952, Oliver Payne got into a shoot-out with Melvin Clark at the Alibi Club. When Clark came to the club with a white girlfriend, Oliver told him to leave and drew a gun on Clark. Clark responded by drawing his own gun from his sports jacket and shooting Oliver Payne before leaving the venue. Payne was fatally wounded by two of six bullets fired from Clark’s .38 revolver, while both of Oliver’s shots missed. The death of Oliver Payne was likely just as much about hamstringing Andrews’ operation as it was the result of a personal altercation, especially since Payne had shown a lack of loyalty to Clark by agreeing to work for his archrival.

The cause of Oliver Payne’s death was listed as “massive hemorrhage due to perforation of abdominal aorta” on his death certificate, meaning that he bled to death after being shot in the stomach as the bullet punctured a major artery. He was rushed to the William Booth Memorial Hospital in nearby Covington, but was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:05 a.m.

Oliver’s older brother, John Payne, identified the body. The funeral was held five days later at C.E. Jones Funeral Home in Covington. That same day, he was buried in a single lot Premacrete sectional grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate. Oliver died at the age of 35, having never been married. He had resided at the same address on West Sixth Street in Newport where his brother Steven lived when he was murdered four years earlier.

For more information, see:

• Richard Challis, “Northern Kentucky, The State’s Stepchild. Origins and Effects of Organized Crime,” The Journal of Kentucky Studies 29 (Sept. 2012): 149-181.

• Robin Caraway, Newport: The Sin City Years (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009).

• Matthew DeMichele and Garry Potter, “Sin City Revisted: A Case Study of the Official Sanctioning of Organized Crime in an “Open City”

* Jim Linduff, Roy Klein, and Larry Trapp. “When Vice Was King: A History of Northern Kentucky Gambling 1920 – 1970.” Preserving Gaming History

• Michael R. Sweeney, “Andrews (Andriola), Frank J. ‘Screw’.” In The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, edited by Paul Tenkotte and James C. Claypool (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009): 27.

Newport Police Department Arrest Record Book 1: 1931 – 1934. Vol. 1. Newport, Kentucky: City of Newport.

Newport Police Department Arrest Book 2: 1934 – 1942. Vol. 2. Newport, KY: City of Newport.

Newport Police Department Arrest Book 3: 1942 – 1948. Vol. 3. Newport, KY: City of Newport.

• “Death Certificate for Oliver Payne, February 7, 1952, File No. 116 52-2192.” Death certificate, Commonwealth of Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics, Frankfort, KY.

• “Death Certificate for Steven L. Payne, March 27, 1948, File No. 5956.” Death certificate, Commonwealth of Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics, Frankfort, KY.

Before Vegas, There Was Newport. DVD, 2012. Directed by Brandon Farris. Produced by John Colmar and Jerry Gels. Performed by Dave Kohake, Johnny Peluso, Eric Hass, Paul Tenkotte, Michael Veech, and Spiros Sarakatsanis Brad Hill.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. James Wilson, Charles Payne, and Emmet Workman, 1928.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. James Wilson, Charles Payne alias John Taylor, and Allen Bean, 1928-1929.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Allen Bean, James Thomas, Steve Payne, and J. T. Smith, 1928-1929.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Steve Payne, Nathan Doddy, Bunesha Davis, Judson Williams, and Marshall Slaughter, 1946-1947.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Allen Bean, James Thomas, Steve Payne, and J. T. Smith, 1947-1948.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Oliver Payne 1949-1950, pp. 431, 518, 549, 576.

• T. Rifle, Kenton County Coroner’s Inquest Records (1948-1954), Kenton County Coroner’s Report, Inquest No. 4005, Entry No. 4005, Steven L. Payne 1948, p. 65.

This headline story from the front page of the Kentucky Post of January 14, 1952 detailed the murder of Oliver “Bull” Payne:

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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