New job for an old gang

Times Staff Writer

Their name, the Businessmen, was derived from the slang term "taking care of business." They were among several dominant African American gangs -- the Slausons, the Gladiators, the Del Vikings -- in the early 1960s in the neighborhood then known as South-Central: the precursors to the Bloods and the Crips.

Now, the Businessmen of South Park have traded their fedoras for bifocals, and their whiskers are gray. But they're together again -- not to fight or drink but to try to unravel what they say is their own destructive legacy. They are tormented by the thought that their early gang activity begot increasingly violent generations of gangs. "We had a hand in making it like this," said Carter Spikes, 61. "Now we are doing what we can to make things right."

So the gang that once hung out by the gymnasium in the big green expanse of South Park on Avalon Boulevard and 51st Street now boasts an office across the street, with a brass placard on the door that reads The Businessmen, and with a computer, coffee maker and extra large canister of Coffee-mate inside.

Former gangsters turned anti-gang activists are nothing new in South Los Angeles. So far, the Businessmen acknowledge, their nascent organization has produced mostly ideas for future projects.

What sets the Businessmen apart are their age -- most are in their 60s -- their memories and a certain mellowness that comes with their status as grizzled survivors.

The Businessmen comprised four generations -- age groups -- of young men growing up around South Park in the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom attended Jefferson High School. Successive generations were dubbed the Seniors, the Juniors, the Babies, and the Unborns. Most of the current group belonged to the third installment of the gang, the Baby Businessmen, active in the period right before the 1965 Watts riots.

Their families were recent migrants from Jim Crow-era Louisiana and East Texas, seeking a better life in a Los Angeles then divvied up by racially restrictive housing covenants. Their parents worked as domestics and garment workers or seized what manufacturing jobs were to be had at a time when blacks still faced considerable discrimination on the factory line.

The Businessmen were poor and mostly jobless. They played sports at South Park and hung out there, as younger gang members still do. "We drank wine and smoked cigarettes and every now and then a little weed," said Shane Stringer, 64.

Despite their empty pockets, they aimed to dress well, favoring leather jackets, alpaca sweaters, alligator shoes and hats -- homburgs and Borsalinos. Those who could afford it got silk-blend slack suits tailored at Arthur Williams on Broadway. They danced the cha-cha, listened to the Isley Brothers and the Dells.

At night there were house parties and fights -- fighting being a central activity of the gang. "The value of a man was how many guys could whip you," Stringer said. The Businessmen's era marked a time when all-white neighborhoods south of Slauson Avenue had recently given way to blacks, said Josh Sides, director of the Center for Southern California Studies at Cal State Northridge. The Businessmen mostly fought other black gangs from these neighborhoods, chiefly the Slausons.

Today's Businessmen describe the gang's old criminal activities as highly disorganized: occasional fights with knives and bumper jacks resulting in serious injuries, a couple of "in-house" killings. Some members dealt marijuana and barbiturates called Red Devils, and some were arrested for robbery, burglary and drug possession. Spikes served time for bank robbery.

Just how violent they were compared to gangs of today is difficult to pinpoint. Lt. Fred Booker of the Los Angeles Police Department said the history of the Businessmen is like folklore, maintained mostly in the memories of those who lived it. A Longtime resident of South Los Angeles, Lawrence Tolliver of Tolliver's barbershop, remembers the Businessmen and their ilk as less numerous than gang members today and their influence as less pervasive.

Back then, Tolliver said, "you never heard of guns." But Spikes recalled that although guns were less common, they were accessible. An illegal firearm could be bought on the street for about $50 to $100, he said. And the same capricious, hair-trigger violence that characterizes many gang killings today typified the killings the Businessmen remember from their youth.

Members of the gang feared the police -- especially those of the then notorious 77th Street Division, which they considered "the last bastion of white supremacy," Spikes said. The word on the street was that a black man died in the 77th Street jail about once a month under mysterious circumstances.

But it was the social life of the gang, not crime, that members say kept its hold on them. Through the years, friendships endured or were rekindled.

Eddie Meador, 59, and fellow Businessman John "Butch" Lemon, 62, were sent to Vietnam and returned heavy drug users. Spikes became a drug dealer, then an addict, and went to prison. Stringer became a follower of Malcolm X and started a family.

But they always found their way back to the park and one another.

Despite harsh times, the core group eventually achieved sobriety and straight jobs. Lemon became a plant manager with the school district and taught his sons about the Businessmen, about dodging the dangers of gang life. Meador devoted himself to the same drug counseling work he says saved his life. Spikes finally got clean and sober at age 48 and now spends his time on unspecified odd jobs -- legal ones, he says -- and community work.

It has only been in the last couple of years that the Businessmen have begun trying to formalize their fraternity into a dues-paying community organization. The dozen members meet regularly, act as informal youth counselors and 12-step sponsors and are die-hard attendees of community events and meetings.

They helped put on a recent spring celebration and Easter egg hunt at the park, and have promoted improvements there. They have big dreams for restoring the glory of the South Park they remember, bringing back its drinking fountains and ornamental fountains.

The group recently submitted an application for nonprofit status to the IRS. They are organizing a Juneteenth Jazz Festival at the band shell at South Park on June 21.

They keep their mission statement in a glass frame: "Create a better community by eliminating violence and crime."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry praises their "old-school manners and very traditional values" and said their contributions, though hard to quantify, resemble those of wise elders, lending their community a sense of pride and history. Police and other officials say they are a stabilizing influence.

The Businessmen hope the jazz festival will serve as a kind of coming-out party for the organization and that nonprofit status will propel them into the ranks of full-fledged service groups. They oppose gang violence but do not renounce gangs, which they believe have value as social clubs -- in their case a lifelong one.

They remain proud of being the Businessmen and of their transformation from "liabilities" to "assets," Lemon said.

"I'm a Businessman and I will be one to the day I die," said Stringer. "We aren't going to lose that identity. We are going to make the negative into a positive."

"Soon we'll be in wheelchairs," Meador said. "But as long as we can do what we are doing, we gotta keep doing it."

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jill.leovy@latimes.com

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