Jonathan Custodio, The City
More than 50 years after he lost his life serving as a peacemaker in the South Bronx, the intersection of East 165 Street and Rogers Place in Longwood has been officially renamed Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin Way.
The corner is where Black Benjie was killed trying to mediate a conflict outside of a middle school between rival gang members. The 25-year-old recovering addict’s martyrdom led directly to the Hoe Avenue peace treaty that significantly lessened gang violence in The Bronx.
A crowd of about 100, including roughly a dozen family members and local Council member Rafael Salamanca Jr. gathered at the corner Friday morning to mark the renaming, the culmination of a five-year campaign launched by Bronx native and social worker Bonnie Massey and her students at Bronx Community Charter School.
The crowd commemorated Black Benjie as only Bronxites could, including through rap, spoken word, drum and dance performances.
Benjie’s family rocked t-shirts with the words “Benjamin Bred” above a photo of him as a young boy, while former members of the Ghetto Brothers, Savage Skulls and Savage Nomads showed up wearing their decades-old gang jackets.
“Getting them to understand that this is their legacy feels really important,” said Massey, who learned about Benjamin from the crowd-funded 2015 documentary “Rubble Kings,” about New York City’s gang culture in the 1970s.
A teacher at her school had also seen the movie and organized a screening where It turned out a maintenance worker’s mother was in the documentary, she said, and the wheels started to turn.
The new sign honoring Black Benjie, said Massey, is “a reminder on that street constantly: Peacemaking is not something that people from outside do. Peacemaking is something that we do here.”
‘Gang Life Was Tough’
Gangs sprouted all over The Bronx in the 1960s after years of disinvestment, as half of the white residents left the borough, taking employment opportunities with them. Unemployment, especially among young people, rose sharply. By the end of the decade, Puerto Rican, Black and white gangs had divided up The Bronx, with an estimated 11,000 members across 100 different gangs.
The largest and most fearsome included the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls, and the Ghetto Brothers.
Others included the Arthur Avenue Boys and the Ministers near Fordham Road and the Savage Nomads and Black Falcons along Third Avenue. Collectively, thousands of gang members wearing vests with their emblems would protect their territory by any means necessary in the early 1970s.
“I’m not here to sugarcoat: Gang life was tough,” Lorine Padilla, the former first lady of the Savage Skulls and herself the subject of the 2022 Showtime documentary La Madrina, told THE CITY in a conversation at her apartment in the Bronx this week.
“There were gang wars. Some people died. Some people were maimed. They got shot, they got stabbed, they got jumped and beat the shit out of. Those things did happen.”
But Padilla said that some gangs also provided much needed community support, a fact that often gets left out of the history.
“We helped the old ladies with the packages. We swept the streets. We didn’t allow outsiders to come in,” she said, adding that the Skulls “stamped out drug users and drug dealers.”
“So that part was really never written about. We took kids to school. We picked kids up from school. We did those things.”
‘I Patrol Here’
For a time, the Ghetto Brothers were among the more violent gangs.
It was founded by Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez, Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez in Hunts Point after the Melendez family had been displaced from Manhattan by a Robert Moses-led development there.
“If you went through someone’s neighborhood, you were a target. Or you had to take off your jacket,’” Suarez recalled in Jeff Chang’s 2005 history of the hip-hop generation, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
“‘If you got caught, they beat the hell out of you.’”
Melendez, an avid musician and admirer of The Beatles, formed a rock band, also called the Ghetto Brothers, with his blood brothers that would jam out at gang parties and elsewhere.
Suarez, who joined his first gang when he was 12 years old, became a Marine before returning to the Ghetto Brothers in 1970, bringing his combat training back with him.
“Benjy was my yin and I was the yang. Good cop, bad cop. I was the one that grabbed them by the throat and administered punishment. Benjy was the one that intervened,” Suarez recalled in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
That started to change in early 1971, when the Ghetto Brothers set up a storefront clubhouse funded by the city and with the help of two teachers at Dwyer Junior High School.
But that May, the Ghetto Brothers reverted back to violence after three members of the gang were shot in the clubhouse and Yellow Benjy’s brother Victor, who’d left to become the vice president of the Savage Nomads, was stabbed.
That was followed by a wave of beatings and ever-bigger battles with gang members increasingly replacing bats and knives with guns, and even using grenades and explosives.
By the summer of 1971, Suarez continued, Benjy was ready to change course, telling him “Let’s stop this gang stuff and form an organization for peace.”
The Ghetto Brothers, inspired in part by the Black Panther Party’s success in pressuring U.S. political leaders to start feeding children before school, began its own free breakfast program along with organizing clothing drives, cleaning apartment buildings and advocating for youth employment and better healthcare.
That’s when they recruited Black Benjie as their peace counselor, a top position in the evolving gang, something like a modern-day violence interrupter that the Ghetto Brothers created in place of the traditional “warlord” who collected weapons and led combat training.
“I’m an ex-drug addict. Now, I’m not gonna lie about it. Now when I came to them, I was still using drugs,” Black Benjie told local TV channel WNET in a Nov. 4, 1971 interview. “I’ve been using drugs off and on since 1967.”
“Due respect to them, they hadn’t seen me for a good while. They didn’t know why. Yellow Benjy asked where I was at. I was in the hospital and I went to kick. When I came back to them, I had everything straightened out. I’ve been straight since and I love Ghetto Brothers.”
When the interviewer asked why Benjie joined if he’d gone “straight,” Benjie said “I’ve been working with people for 14 years. Adults and neighborhood youth corps. All through my life. I have messed up quite a few times but it’s a purpose here” in doing “something that’s beneficial to neighborhoods, the establishment or anyone else”
That something he said is making sure that “any Ghetto Brother or Ghetto Sister, if they’re in school, we want them to stay in school. I enforce that because, if they’re not around I got to go through this. I patrol here.”
Less than a month later, on December 2, Black Benjie and a group of Ghetto Brothers ventured to Horseshoe Park on East 165th Street and Rogers Place. Word had gotten out that several gangs – including the Mongols, the Seven Immortals and the Black Spades – were jumping kids on the Ghetto Brothers’ turf before heading to the park right by Dwyer Junior High to rumble with the Savage Skulls.
As detailed in the 1973 film, “Ain’t Gonna Eat My Mind,” when Black Benjie arrived, he told the beefing gang members that he was only there to “talk peace.” They were not interested, surrounding him and the Ghetto Brothers.
“Peace, shit,” one of the gang members told him before taking out a lead pipe. Another member pulled out a machete. Sensing the impending fight, a Ghetto Brother named Playboy took his belt out and swung.
Black Benjie told his brothers to flee, but as they ran the gang member with the lead pipe hit him and other gang members then beat, cut and stomped him to death.
While an 18-year-old Black Spade named George Peterson was soon charged with his murder, no one was ever convicted for it.
“This was bound to come,” Morton Weinberger, the principal of the junior high school who “had long complained of inadequate police protection and deficient staffing” told the Associated Press.
War and Peace
After Black Benjie’s killing, “I knew we were going to war,” Padilla, the former first lady of the Savage Skulls, told THE CITY.
Indeed, the Ghetto Brothers started to assemble an armory and captured five members of the Mongols and Seven Immortals, including a member named Julio who they viciously beat on the belief that he was one of their friend’s killers. But that was before the gang’s leaders visited Gwendolyn Benjamin, Black Benjie’s mother, who told them “I don’t war. I want peace. My son died for peace,” Padilla recalled.
So Yellow Benjy and Karate Charlie reached out to Felipe “Blackie” Mercado, president of the Savage Skulls, one of the Bronx’s biggest gangs. After lining up his support, they got the leaders and warlords of 40 gangs to meet in neutral territory, at the Hoe Avenue Boys Club of America.
Cops and reporters waited outside as more than 150 gang members, almost all of them Black or Puerto Rican, gathered to discuss Black Benjie’s killing and a plan for peace.
The only two women in the building were the leaders of two all-female gangs, who sat in the back row.
At the end of the meeting, gang leaders shook hands in the middle of the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium, Padilla recalled, and every member in attendance signed the Hoe Avenue peace treaty.
“We realize that we are all brothers living in the same neighborhoods and having the same problems. We also realize that fighting amongst ourselves will not solve our common problems.” the document stated, as quoted in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
“All groups are to respect each other – cliques individual members and their women. Each member clique of the Family will be able to wear their colors in other member cliques’ turf without being bothered. … This is the Peace we pledge to keep. PEACE BETWEEN ALL GANGS AND A POWERFUL UNITY.”
What came out of that, said Robert Dominguez, who joined the Ghetto Brothers about a year later, when he was 12, “was no more rumbles, basically. If there’s any beef you try and talk it out and if it persists you have a one-on-one and fight it out gladiator style.”
Dominguez, a 30-year veteran of the New York Daily News, where he’s now the managing editor, recalled that when he attended Jordan L. Mott Junior High School in Concourse Village there was “a sprinkler ring but the sprinkler didn’t work, and that’s where the gangs would come with one on each side” to see two members face off.
“It was out of a cheesy movie, but it was real,” he said.
While “there were fights here and there” after the treaty, Padilla said, gangs no longer dominated the borough or its turf.
“To me, she’s the hero because I don’t know what I’d do if I lost a child,” Padilla said of Gwendolyn Benjamin. “She deserves her flowers because it takes courage.”
‘A Badge of Honor’
“It was tough surviving then, when the gangs were rampant,” Dominguez said. On his walk to Jordan L Mott Junior High School in Concourse Village, “where I was an honor roll student and a good kid, we’d have to walk in a group and hope we wouldn’t get accosted by a member wearing colors, giving you a hard time, taking your money, the whole nine,” he recalled.
“That wasn’t West Side Story stuff with ten guys who were buddies. We’re talking big, sort of organized street gangs with colors and leadership with presidents, vice presidents and divisions.”
After two older teens who’d come into his junior high, poured milk on his head and then punched him were arrested for trespassing, Dominguez said, “the next day on my way to school I kept hearing about how ‘the Black Spades are coming to get you.’ A friend of mine was in the Ghetto Brothers and I said, ‘I want in.’”
“You had to almost shadow-box,” Dominguez recalled, “to show what you had. Then, I was in and I got instant protection.“
A few months later, the division leader for the junior members got sent to Spofford, The Bronx’s infamous and now shuttered juvenile detention center, and Dominguez was named as his fill-in.
“I was this skinny little runt, I don’t think my voice had barely changed and I’m commanding a division of this humongous street gang with divisions and clubhouses all over the city and in Puerto Rico and up and down the East Coast. It was pretty amazing! I was hot shit on the streets but had to hide it from my teachers and parents.”
As Yellow Benjy worked to remake the Ghetto Brothers into something more like the politically active Young Lords Party, Dominguez was free to leave and did so in the summer of 1973, as “I’d had enough of this. You lose your protection, but you don’t lose your reputation and that was it.”
The next year, he said, “my parents saw The Bronx was starting to burn and we moved away to Forest Hills and got away from it.”
Dominguez says he still ends up crossing paths, online and around New York City, with people who it turns out were in or related to The Bronx’s gangs.
“In some ways, it was a big fraternity,” said Dominguez. “I guess people who went through it feel like they survived an era because it was tough in The Bronx then and it only got worse after that. It’s 50 years ago, and I guess a lot of people who grew up there look back and almost romanticize it now in a way.”
Still, Dominguez said, “I wear it like a badge of honor now.”
Influencing the Culture
“When we were gang busting, you couldn’t walk just any block,” Padilla recalled.
“If you’re wearing patches of, say, Seven Immortals, and I go with my Savage Skull patches down your block, you’re gonna strip me because it’s disrespectful. And now you took my colors. So now I come back to my shop and I tell them, and now we all go into your block to get our colors back, and that’s where the war begins.”
But after the Hoe Avenue Treaty, kids who’d often joined gangs to get protection were no longer confined to their block-long bubbles, and the borough opened up as the color and energy that had gone into gang life found new outlets in music and other expressive forms.
“When the peace treaty came, it was more open: you can walk. And that’s why it opened up hip hop,” Padilla continued, “because now the DJs could spin in any neighborhood. And three, four or five different gangs will be there in attendance with no war.”
Looking back a half-century later, Padilla reflected that “life has a way of making history while you’re in it and you don’t even realize it.”
After the Hoe Avenue peace treaty was signed, said Dominguez, “some Black Spade members became the Zulu nation and there you go: The roots of rap right there.”
On August 11, 1973, less than two years later, hip-hop was “officially” born at a dance party with DJ Kool Herc in the community room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.
“I don’t care what anybody says, let them come see me,” said Padilla. “Had there been no peace treaty, there’d had been no hip-hop.”
Meantime, a sharp increase in heroin addiction also diminished gang activity, Padilla noted, so that by the 1980s the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads were the only gangs remaining from a decade earlier.
As the gangs themselves faded into memories, their aesthetic was captured in the 1979 cult classic, The Warriors, including a seminal scene about a summit of gangs in the Bronx gone terribly wrong that was directly inspired by the Hoe Avenue Summit.
When that film debuted, a very different gang with a distinctive uniform showed up to protest outside of theaters: The Guardian Angels and their leader Curtis Sliwa, claimed the R-rated film wasn’t appropriate for minors, or anyone else for that matter, and would inspire gang violence.
“My dad, who just recently passed away, Charles Benjamin, talked about my uncle Cornell. I don’t want to say often, but often enough that I knew that he was someone that was important to my dad and I knew that they were close,” Black Benjie’s niece, 54-year-old Angelique Lenox, told THE CITY at Friday’s street naming ceremony.
“I knew that he missed him. And I knew that he loved him,” Lenox said, recalling that her father would tell her about how he and his brother got their Social Security cards together so that their numbers were just one digit apart.
“I think he was haunted by that. I think that their relationship again, they were close and he lost a sibling. He lost a friend,” she continued, noting that her father left the city a few years after his brother’s killing.
“I think that was the catalyst also for how he raised his children and him leaving New York.”
But, Lenox noted, she hadn’t known the story of Black Benjie’s killing, which took place when she was 2 years old, until her aunt sent her an article in 2011 in which Yellow Benjy spoke about it.
“How I’ve always heard about my uncle was just Cornell.”
In the years that followed, Lenox spoke with her dad and scoured the web to learn as much as she could about her uncle. She eventually stumbled upon the petition organized by Massey for the street renaming, signing it, and then found the graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker, written by Julian Voloj.
Lenox did know from her father that Cornell had left behind a son named Michael, her father’s middle name.
“My dad has spent many, many years looking for him, trying to find him,” she said. “And I’m now on this quest, hoping that maybe there is a son out there named Michael Benjamin.”
At Friday’s street naming ceremony, Lenox was stunned to see for the first time a photo brought there by Black Benjie’s younger cousin, Karen Smith.
“Oh my God, that’s Cornell with his son,” said Lenox, tearing up.
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