The untold story of the inmate who helped shape Malcolm X’s future
To Malcolm, he was Bimbi. To me he was John Elton Bembry, my uncle.
To officials in the Massachusetts Department of Correction, he was prisoner #22138 – a tall, slender “light Mulatto,” whose personality was described by his prison caseworker as “intelligent, studious … influential among other colored inmates.”
To society, he was a career criminal – a man with a lengthy arrest record that extended coast-to-coast. Some charges were legit (breaking and entering); others (loitering, vagrancy) likely the result of him simply being a black man in America.
To Malcolm X, he was Bimbi – a man whose influence played a significant role in altering the life path of the famed Muslim minister and human rights activist. As Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography, Bimbi was “the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with his words.”
To me, he was blood. My father’s oldest brother, John Elton Bembry. Uncle Elton.
Although I spent less than 10 times with him in my life, Uncle Elton remains the most brilliant man I’ve ever encountered. My personal connection with him came up during a discussion of Black History Month at The Undefeated. I wanted to write about him in connection with the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21. After the staff meeting, I contacted the Massachusetts Department of Correction and placed a public records request for his file. Three days later, I received a response: “Good Afternoon Jerry, Please see attached.”
I’ll be honest, that email gave me chills. I clicked on the attachment labeled “Bembry record,” and what materialized was a PDF file that was 89 pages long. For the next few hours, I dove in. That began my first real introduction to the man and the world from which he emerged.
Edenton, North Carolina, is a picturesque town of just over 5,000 people that sits on the north side of the Albemarle Sound, about a 90-minute drive west of the more popular Outer Banks. It feels like entering a time warp when you travel through the streets of Edenton’s historic district, an eclectic collection of colonial and plantation-era homes, a charm that earned the town one of the 11 spots on Forbes magazine’s list of the prettiest towns in America. Strip the area of the modern cars, and I would imagine Edenton’s historic district looking similar to the way it did in 1912, the year Uncle Elton was born to Joseph and Eva Bembry — my grandparents.
Uncle Elton (I always referred to him by his middle name; to some of my cousins he was Uncle Johnny) was the first of seven children raised in what he described to prison officials as a loving, stable household not far from the waterfront and less than two blocks from the Lane House, a 1719 structure on East Queen Street that’s believed to be the oldest surviving home in the state. Joseph Bembry was a barber in a town where — even in a segregated Southern state — there’s evidence of a few success stories among black people: the most notable being Josephine Napoleon Leary, a barber (along with her husband), who was freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War and purchased six properties in town by the time she was 25. By 2014 calculations, that would have put her economic wealth at $2.3 million.
The property she built on Broad Street in 1896 (the original structure she purchased in 1875 was destroyed by a fire) still bears her name and sits just over a block away from a monument to Confederate soldiers that was constructed in 1900.
It’s quite possible that a string of tragic family events altered Uncle Elton’s life. His father died in 1924 of a kidney disorder at the age of 30, just one month before the last of his seven kids was born. His grandmother, Bettie Bembry, died a year later of heart disease. She was just 51.
His mother, Eva, remarried in 1928. By 1930, she and her husband had moved to New York, where she worked as a domestic. But Eva died in 1933 at the age of 39.
By that time, the family was scattered throughout New York. Uncle Elton’s two youngest brothers (my uncles Dave and Clinton) were shipped to an upstate New York orphanage where they were eventually “retrieved” by my father, Joseph, and his brother, Charles.
There was more tragedy in 1935: The youngest girl of the seven siblings, Mary Bembry, died on Valentine’s Day at the age of 13.
Within months of his sister’s burial in the same plot as their parents back in Edenton, Uncle Elton was officially introduced into America’s criminal justice system.
The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted a decade, left a nation devastated. None in America suffered more than black people.
That’s the era Uncle Elton was raised, a time where the economic downturn eliminated the lower-paying jobs (in his case, losing his job as a waiter and porter at a tourist cottage in Virginia Beach in 1929) that most black people were stuck working.
Uncle Elton went into survival mode. He followed the family to New York, where he worked odd jobs at a barbershop and at a shoe repair shop in lower Manhattan as a bootblack (he shined shoes). In 1933, he began a long stretch of unemployment, making occasional money in card games in New York.
His criminal history began in August 1935, when he was arrested for vagrancy in New Rochelle, New York. He was loitering in a business district during the early morning hours, which earned him a suspended sentence and an order to leave the city.
With no job, no home and a scattered family, Uncle Elton began a journey to the West Coast, an eight-year stretch where he picked up a few odd jobs along the way, as well as earning an FBI file number while being arrested 13 times in 11 different states.
The first offense that earned him serious time behind bars came in 1937 when he was charged with two counts of grand theft after snatching two purses near the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. That resulted in a prison sentence of between one to 10 years in San Quentin. (He served just over three years before his release on May 26, 1940).
When I discovered his processing photo taken as he entered what’s long been one of America’s most notorious prisons at the age of 25, I studied it for a good 10 minutes. I had never seen a picture of him as a young man.
His 1937 arrest in California earned him his longest possible sentence.
His 1943 arrest in West Springfield, Massachusetts, earned him historical and cultural significance.
On the night of Feb. 18, 1943, a housekeeper in West Springfield called police to report a break-in. Uncle Elton was picked up in the neighborhood by officers who responded. The next day, according to the documents, he admitted to ringing the front door of the home and, when no one responded, entering the house through a side window. He initially denied the theft, according to files, but later admitted to stealing jewelry that included two gold wedding rings, two watches and cash. Also in his possession when he was arrested: six tickets for pawn shops in New York.
Elton was committed to the Massachusetts State Prison on May 12, 1943 (his sentence was 5-7 years), and worked as a license plate laborer. A tall, skinny man (he was 5-feet, 11 inches and weighed 165 pounds when he entered prison), Elton stood out for his light-complected face that was filled with freckles. He did his work with pride and always received high praise. These are comments from several prison reports:
“Reads biographies and good fiction.”
“Devotes a fair share of his spare time studying English and other kindred subjects … always uses his spare time constructively.”
“A studious chap, well-meaning, polite but a little too sure of himself in his assertions.”
“Very good worker, proficient and intelligent.”
That intelligence earned Elton a transfer to the state prison colony Norfolk, a medium security prison community for model prisoners that was launched in 1927 by Harvard professor Howard Belding Gill, whose intent with the facility was to rehabilitate motivated inmates in an environment that was more college campus than institution. Inmates were often taught by college professors representing some of the esteemed universities in the Boston area, including Harvard.
Elton took classes while at Norfolk, earning a certificate after completing a correspondence course in Elementary English and Rhetoric, and followed that by taking Vocabulary Building, Part 1. He worked in the tailor shop there, pitched on the unit’s baseball team, served on the inmate council and regularly attended religious services. He was a member, according to documents, of the prison’s esteemed debate team, and during the period between 1933 and 1966 when the inmates had a record of 144-8 while competing against schools that included Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
For Elton, Norfolk represented a best-case scenario behind bars. It gave him the ability to gain recognition for his intellect, something that was denied him outside of the prison walls.
The status and privileges he enjoyed at Norfolk ended on April 15, 1946, when 20 inmates — including Elton — refused to work, telling guards, “No food, no work.” As the prison superintendent was called to the scene, a guard read off each of the prisoners’ names and asked if they wished to work. Five inmates said yes and reported to their work stations. Several verbally stated they would not work. Elton was among a group who remained silent.
A guard who prepared a report of the incident wrote about Elton and what he perceived to be his reluctant participation: “This man could be sucked in on this. … He was in a tough spot. … Is not a bad inmate but is in this group and will have to be punished with him.”
Elton was deemed unfit for open type institution and sent back to the state prison in Charlestown.
By the time he arrived back to the maximum security facility, Malcolm Little was already there, having arrived in February 1946 after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for breaking and entering, and larceny.
Uncle Elton would often express to his family his fondness for the man who Malcolm X became, but rarely spoke of the time they served together aside from a letter to my cousin, Clinton, in which he said he introduced the future Muslim leader to the work of Henry David Thoreau.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X says the two met while stamping license plates: my uncle, who was 13 years older, ran the machine that stamped out the numbers, while Malcolm X “worked along the conveyor belt where the numbers were painted.”
Malcolm X, in his autobiography, described the prison workers gathering after reaching their license plate quota:
“We would sit around, perhaps 15 of us, and listen to Bimbi. Normally, white prisoners wouldn’t think of listening to Negro prisoners’ opinions on anything, but guards, even, would wander over to hear Bimbi on any subject. … I wasn’t the first inmate who had never heard of Thoreau until Bimbi expounded upon him. Bimbi was the library’s best customer.
“Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I’d use them. … I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi.”
While Uncle Elton’s influence on Malcolm X has been well-documented, there was only one historian who appears to have actually spoken to him about their relationship. That was Bruce Perry, who interviewed more than 400 people over a span of 20 years during research for his 1991 book Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America.
Perry noted in his book that Malcolm X borrowed my uncle’s dictionary so many times — so thirsty to expand his vocabulary — that my uncle eventually gave it to him. Malcolm X began tailing my uncle, and as Perry wrote, “plied him with questions about everything under the sun.” At one point Malcolm X, according to Perry, told my uncle:
“When I get out of this place I’m going to be a bad n—–, but I’m going to be…a smart bad n—–.”
Jed Tucker, the director of Reentry and Alumni Affairs at Bard who has been conducting research on Malcolm X’s prison years, describes my uncle as “one of several unsung heroes of the story of Malcolm X.” Tucker mentioned Elton several times in his 2017 research paper: Malcolm X, The Prison Years: The Relentless Pursuit of Formal Education.
“Your uncle plays a key role in the popular story of Malcolm already,” he wrote in an email to me and my cousin, “though I fear it is more caricature than the in-depth treatment he deserves.”
On March 31, 1948, Malcolm X was transferred from Charlestown to the Norfolk facility where he, too, was a member of the debate team that likely helped him shape his skills as a great orator. Malcolm X, who converted to Islam while in prison, was released in 1952.
Malcolm X walked away from his life of crime.
Seven months after Malcolm X was transferred to Norfolk, my uncle was discharged from prison where, in the five years he served there, he never had a visitor. He returned to New York and entered a world of illegal activity — his brothers, including my father, ran the numbers, and a sister-in-law would later operate a network of brothels.
His life of crime, according to documents, continued.
He was arrested at least two more times after his 1948 release and was never able to get his life on track.
While living in Brooklyn in 2005, I came across an article announcing an exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem: Malcolm X: A Search for the Truth. My interest in the exhibit was two-fold: to see the never-before-seen items that made up the 250-item exhibit, and to see if there was any acknowledgment of my uncle.
Halfway through the exhibit, the answer to my second question emerged on a text on the southern wall:
“The ‘Detroit Red’ who entered prison in February 1946 gained a place for himself there as the angry, irreligious ‘Satan,’ as Malcolm X describes him in the Autobiography. But an older prisoner, John Elton Bembry, recognized Malcolm’s intelligence and encouraged him to read.”
Reading that made me swell with pride. I felt like screaming, “That’s my uncle!” to the dozens of people who were experiencing the exhibit.
In reality, Elton was the uncle that I barely knew. The Bembry brothers from Edenton were loosely connected in New York, spending much of their time together at the racetracks or off-track betting parlors.
Uncle Elton briefly stayed with my cousin, Clinton, who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My cousin recalls the time they spent together. “I used to go to the pool hall and watch my father and Uncle Johnny run the table,” said Clinton, whose family had an interesting dynamic: His father, Clinton, was a big-time numbers runner in Harlem while his mother, an immigrant from Russia, operated brothels throughout the city. “He moved in with us in 1971, and Johnny helped raise me.”
Uncle Elton would take my cousins who lived in New Jersey – Charles, Clinton, Ronnie and Timothy – on excursions into the city, a hand-off from their dad, Charles (aka Uncle Specky) when he came to New York to check on the numbers operation run by the Bembry brothers. “I remember my father dropping us off and [Elton] would take us to the matinee show at the Apollo and leave us there,” my cousin, Charles, told me. “My dad saw Uncle Elton in Harlem and said, ‘Where the kids at?’ That made my father mad.”
My time with Uncle Elton was scarce. My parents separated when I was 6, so the time I spent with my father — and his family — depended on whether he won money at racetrack. He didn’t win enough.
Occasionally I would see Uncle Elton at family birthday parties in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Asking him about Malcolm X never crossed my mind, for this reason: One of my earliest childhood memories is the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. I have no recollection of the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X (I was 3), and zero knowledge of who the Muslim leader was and his connection to my family.
I’d see him and speak to him, briefly, at funerals. He wrote the obituary when my father died in 1979. Spoke to him briefly at my dad’s funeral. The few real, extensive conversations I had with Elton came in 1989, the final year of his life. My sister, Mary, and I visited him in the hospital in Harlem, where he was terminally ill with cancer. I vividly remember him sitting up in his hospital bed and discussing a wide range of topics with an incredible intellect that helped me understand why everyone who stepped into his orbit — including Malcolm X — was so impressed.
I promised myself that day that I would visit him more often. But the next time I saw him was months later at my cousin’s wedding. His health had deteriorated. Within a matter of months, Uncle Elton was dead.
He had no wife and no kids that I know of. Few in our family attended his memorial service.
I wish he had more time.
I wish we had more time.
The search to discover Uncle Elton has been therapeutic. In a matter of months, I visited the hometown where my family grew up, found the graves of my grandparents, aunt and great grandmother who died decades before I was born, and walked the same streets that my father and his siblings inhabited in the early years of their lives.
Exploring Edenton made me wonder how different Uncle Elton’s life would have been had he grown up in a time when he had a real shot at being successful.
To many, looking at his long rap sheet, he’ll be viewed as a thug who wasted his talents.
To me, while I have long appreciated the man who had a huge impact on one of the most iconic figures in this nation, I now have a better understanding of the challenges in his life, the decisions he was forced to make and the lives he was able to impact.
Including the life of Malcolm X who, with a little guidance, emerged as one of the most influential leaders in American history.