Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Detroit's Griot of Griswold Street--Larry Mongo--on The Blue Vein Society

In a hidden pocket--a couple of blocks up and over from Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit--Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy is tucked within a very short block. Owner Larry Mongo bought the business in June of 1987 from the Greek Seros family. Their specialty was chili con carne. At one time, the building was an old-fashioned soda pop shop.
Larry's son Jerome turned the building into an afterhours club called the Wax Fruit Rhythm Cafe where Detroit rappers performed until it closed in 1993. Larry and his wife renamed the business Cafe D'Mongo's. The "D" represents his wife Dianne.
There is a low counter top and stationary stools bolted to the floor and four booths across from them. Behind the booths is a wall separating an area with upholstered chairs and a few small tables facing a grand piano where the Speakeasy's house band Carl and Company--led by Carl, the Human Jukebox--performs after 8:00 PM on Friday and Saturday nights. The bar is open from 5:00 PM until closing.

There is no better way to describe D'Mongo's Speakeasy than an authentic Detroit dive. The interior decoration looks like a museum of Detroit memorabilia. Its walls are loaded with photos that harken to Detroit's past, mixed with vintage photos of the Mongo family from the 1920s onward. Adorning several spots on the walls are original portraits of American jazz artists painted by longtime docuartist DeVon Cunningham. Many celebrities have made the pilgrimage to D'Mongo's--movie director Quentin Tarantino for one and actor Ryan Gosling for another.

Larry Mongo and Quentin Tarantino

Larry invited my Terror In Ypsilanti researcher Ryan M. Place and me to attend a taping at Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy for a program called Ten Best Bars In America for Esquire magazine. The joint was packed with the new face of Detroit--a mixture of young, upwardly mobile Detroiters. 


The Mongo family has had a long and fabled history in Detroit since the first four Mongo men left South Carolina in 1906 to avoid the long arm of the law. One of them was wanted to murder. During prohibition, the Mongo family worked with Detroit's Purple Gang, so they could safely operate a chain of fish markets in the Detroit area which the gang used to launder their bootlegging, extortion, and gambling profits. This relationship gave that generation of Mongos a certain level of power and respect on the street.

In more recent Detroit history, Larry and his younger brother Adolph have been political advisers to Black mayors from Coleman Young--Detroit's first Black mayor--to Kwame Kilpatrick. When things went terribly wrong in the Kilpatrick administration, the Mongo's wisely took a step backwards to disassociate themselves from the bad publicity.

One afternoon, I was able to meet and talk with Larry Mongo about the issue of race which has dominated Detroit politics for the last fifty years. Being an Ofay--derisive Black term for a White person--I was not aware of something which contemporary social scientists have labeled pigmentocracy. Within the American Black population at the turn of the twentieth-century until the mid-1960s, wealth and status of African Americans were tied to the shade of skin color--the lighter, the better.

"There was an interracial caste system in the Black community where dark skinned blacks were looked down upon by lighter skinned blacks as being genetically inferior," Larry Mongo explained. "There was something called The Blue Vein Society where a person had to show his or her forearm to look for a dark blue vein to determine if the person was mixed race or not.

"Inner racism was worse at times than outer racism. We classified ourselves by shade of color or how much African blood you had. You might be described as an octoroon--a person of one-eighth African blood--or a mulatto--bi-racial--or somewhere in between."

President Johnson and Martin Luther King at signing of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

I asked Larry Mongo about the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Detroit's Black community. "After the Civil Rights Act--passed by Lyndon Johnson's administration--everything changed in the Black community and neighborhoods," Larry explained.

"Don't get me wrong, things were never perfect back then, but everyone knew their place and the color lines were clearly drawn. Cross them and you did so at your own risk. That was in the heyday of the Jim Crow--separate but equal--laws.

"All manner of Black businesses catered to Black neighborhoods and things usually went okay. Everyone was getting by. When the Jim Crow laws were repealed and the Civil Rights Act was passed into law, more affluent Blacks could spent their money in White establishments like hotels and restaurants which had been off limits before.

Patterns of segregation--previously enforced by red-lining and real estate covenants--became illegal and drew successful middle-class Blacks out of the ghettos into outlying areas. This migration drew valuable resources away from the Black neighborhoods.

"Many Black businesses were mom-and-pop operations in neighborhoods that could no longer support them. These
neighborhoods went into further decline struggling to survive. Then in the sweltering heat of July 23rd, 1967--all hell broke loose on 12th Street--Detroit started to burn. 

"When (Antoine) Cadillac came here in 1701, it took 250 years to build up Detroit. This city has rotted from the inside out. Detroit needs a new economy--then business growth will begin to feed everything else. The city will survive only by creating wealth and decent jobs to help our residents pull themselves out of poverty and despair. More of our young people need to go to school rather than jail. They need to go to the library instead of the street corner. Now that will be a real revolution."


After my visit with Larry Mongo, I decided to Google the Blue Vein Society to learn more about it. From there, my research led me to several other culturally historic facts about the Black community in the first half of the twentieth-century.

The phrase Blue Vein Society originated at the end of the nineteenth-century, according to American author Charles W. Chesnutt in 1898. "This is a group which limited its membership to blue veins--light-skinned Black people White enough to show blue veins on their forearms.

"At the turn of the century, there were many American cities with Blue Vein Societies representing the miniscule Black upper and upper-middle classes. The Negro Blue Vein Society mimicked the white patrician Blue Blood Societies. Their primary purpose was to sponsor balls and galas as meeting places for eligible blue veined youth."

The Creoles in Louisiana formed almost a separate class of black American because they tended to be better educated with lighter skin--the children of more generations of co-mingling with European Whites--especially the French and Spanish.

Another phenomenon of Black cultural pigmentocracy--a carry over from the nineteenth century--was the paper bag test which originated in New Orleans. A brown paper bag would be attached to the entrance of a party or event, and anyone darker than the paper bag was denied admittance. This test was said to have been used in many churches, fraternities, and nightclubs.

Michael Eric Dyson
American author Michael Eric Dyson wrote, "The brown paper bag test is a metaphor for how the Black cultural elite literally established a caste system along color lines within the black community. This is one of the ways Blacks with European ancestry attempted to isolate and distinguish themselves from those who are mostly African."

My research also revealed some other labels still used within the black community. A redbone describes light coppery or caramel-colored skin with red overtones in the hair, sometimes with freckles and sometimes not. A yellowbone--also called high yellow--is slang for light-skinned Black females who could often pass as a White person.
Remember, this was the world before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In an attempt to secure a better life in segregated America, many light-skinned, mixed-race Blacks crossed the color line as reborn descendants of European ancestry and never looked back.

The history of mankind is rife with examples of one group who perceives itself as superior foisting itself upon another group who is perceived as inferior. This oppression takes many forms but always ends up the same way with someone being discriminated against.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Murderabilia - Market for the Macabre

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing consumer market in serial killer themed merchandise and artifacts. Murderabilia refers to the collection, sale, and marketing of original artwork, articles of clothing, and personal possessions of notorious killers in general and serial killers in particular. Stories and books about serial killers have great appeal with the public and attest to the popular interest in this type of murder.

Image from the Shroud of Turin
Since biblical times, religious relics and artifacts were believed to have sacred qualities, a belief which carries down to our present day. The sale of splinters and nails from the crucifixion of Christ were sold throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and the Shroud of Turin still has the ability to inspire the faithful, even after the discovery that it was made of Medieval period linen. The Catholic faithful continue to have their rosaries and scapulars blessed by the parish priest.

The trade in items belonging to serial killers or objects having been touched by them is the antithesis of religious relics or items like mass cards and rosary beads that have been blessed. It is believed that these items have an atavistic quality to them, but rather than being imbued with the sacred, serial killer artifacts are tainted with the profane.

The fascination with death and the dark side of humanity has a long history. The display of the bodies of the infamous has always drawn large crowds of gawking, respectable people. The public viewing of the Dalton Brothers and the James Gang comes to mind. In more recent times, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde's bodies were photographed and given wide circulation in newspapers across American. In many places in America, hangings were public events, especially of ruthless killers.

The severed head of Joaquin Murrietta, legendary Mexican outlaw, was popular on the medicine show circuit in the Southwest and drew huge crowds. So many people were willing to pay to see the notorious bandit that several severed heads were known to be touring at the same time. For many people, the sight of a severed head pickled in a jar of alcohol was enough of an attraction regardless of the true identity of the victim. Touring attractions such as Al Capone's bulletproof car and the bullet-riddled car of Bonnie and Clyde still have the power to attract crowds at county fairs and other venues.

The first murder memorabilia I remember seeing was the chair President Abraham Lincoln was shot in by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Henry Ford had the foresight to purchase the chair before it was lost to history.
Generations of Michigan youth have memories of trips to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and seeing this artifact of our shared national history, still stained with Lincoln's blood. 

Some murderabilia has more historical significance than others to be sure. American collectors in post World War II bought up as much Nazi memorabilia as they could. These artifacts include weapons, uniforms, medals, helmets, flags, and Nazi government documents. It wasn't until the 1980s and the advent of the public internet that the fascination with serial killers began to dominate the murderabilia trade.

Countless magazine articles, books, movies, and cable television shows have made celebrity devils out of many of the most infamous killers in American history. Names like Richard Speck, Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahmer, and the poster boy for American serial killers Ted Bundy are widely known and have become part of the criminal folklore of America.

Some people think the marketing of murderabilia is grotesque and immoral, and it should be illegal. They argue that the promotion and marketing of these ruthless serial killers contributes to their celebrity folk status and larger than life portrayals. Much of the public is disgusted with the idea that convicted sex-slayers can parade around like celebrities nourishing their egos at the expense of their victims and their families.

Son of Sam murders prompted new law.

Because of the feeding frenzy of New York publishers in 1977 to pay big money to David Berkowitz for the rights to tell his "Son of Sam" story, the New York State Assembly drafted and passed what is known as the "Son of Sam" law. The law's intent is to prevent convicted felons from profiting from their crimes through book publishers, film producers, or television networks. Convicts lose the ability to tell their own stories and profit from it.

Any money earned from "expressive or creative works" is deposited into an escrow account and then used to compensate crime victims and their families. Eight states currently have "notoriety-for-profit" laws that follow the money trial of murderabilia sales to insure that convicts don't make money indirectly through third-party involvement.

For my part, I have been purchasing the rights to every John Norman Collins related photograph available on the internet, not to buy and sell as murderabilia, but to use as research documentation in my true crime account of the Washtenaw County sex-slayings, The Rainy Day Murders. At some point, I will donate these photos and the government documents I have purchased to an archive in Ypsilanti, Michigan. For the record, I don't trade in murderabilia.

But recently I came across a site that sells Serial Killer Trading Cards, and I bought two of John Norman Collins' cards for under three dollars apiece. One for me and one for him. What prompted me to purchase them was that the card's writer got Collins' name wrong. It is listed as "Norman Collins." Norman Collins was a British author who is in no way related to John Norman Collins. Even in the subculture of murderabilia collectors, serial killer John Norman Collins cuts a sorry figure.    

Murderabilia dealer banned from Texas state prisons system: