“That’s where I learned that bricks hide poverty,” he wrote. “Back in Southeast we could tell which were the poor people’s houses because they were made of wood and would be falling apart. The house on W Street had a nice brick front and looked fine from the outside, but was so terrible inside it was condemned by the city after we moved out.”
It was a neighborhood full of kids. Thompson played stoopball against the front steps and touch football in the alleys. He wrote: “I played my first organized sport, on a baseball team whose uniforms were purchased by a local numbers runner named Simpson. He had a restaurant on North Capitol Street where one of my sisters worked.”
Teasing apart the underworld figures of 1940s and 1950s Washington is an inexact science. There may have been a numbers runner named Simpson. According to newspaper reports, a man named Henry M. Simpson was indicted on gambling charges in 1950. This Simpson lived in the 400 block of M Street NW, four blocks from North Capitol.
So, perhaps that’s who Thompson was referring to. If so, Simpson was a small fry compared to a man with a similar last name: Simkins.
For 30 years, Roger W. “Whitetop” Simkins — the nickname was a nod to the snowy hair on his head — was the czar of the District gambling scene, an African American man whose operation was as lucrative as any White-run game in town.
Simkins first came to the attention of police in the 1940s, when he ran a numbers racket out of the Georgia Avenue NW home of his girlfriend, Sarah “Dimples” Mears Hall.
The numbers game — where bettors picked numbers and posted wagers with middlemen who delivered cash to big operators like Simkins — was a popular pastime all over the city. In Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, the game was run by the Warring brothers, former bootleggers. Simkins’s territory extended out from U Street and 14th Street.
In 1951 and 1952, Congress decided to attack the problem. Operators were dragged into hearing rooms for interviews that captivated the city. Dimples Hall was one of the witnesses. Wearing a mink-trimmed Persian lamb coat, she testified that Simkins ran his numbers game from her house from 1940 to 1945. A half dozen workers would tally up the river of money — up to $4,000 a day — on adding machines.
“Where did you keep the money?” a senator asked.
“We didn’t keep the money,” Hall replied. “When the money — when I checked the money up Mr. Simkins would take it away in the evenings.”
Hall rattled off the names of some of the underworld figures Whitetop Simkins mixed with: Little Joe, Sporty Johnson, Jack the Bear, Sunshine Boldware, Odessa Madre, Piggy Leake, Geechee Charlie . . .
But it was another type of visitor that especially interested the lawmakers: police officers. Dimples Hall said she occasionally saw cops visit the gambling HQ, but Simkins implied she needn’t worry. The operation was protected.
Question: “What did he call the protection that he paid — what was his term for it?”
Hall confirmed that the details of which cops were paid how much was kept on an “ice sheet.”
When it came time for Simkins to testify, he went on record as being opposed to the television cameras that were broadcasting the proceedings live. Then he clammed up.
Simkins gave the same response — “I refuse to answer” — to question after question, from “Have you ever given any police officer a television set?” to “Did you keep a pistol in the Brass Rail?”
The Brass Rail was a bar at 1739 Seventh St. NW that was the scene of a shooting in 1948. Simkins said his wife, Yvonne, owned it, but authorities yanked its liquor license, maintaining Whitetop was the real owner.
In 1955, Simkins and five other gambling figures went on trial. They were charged with bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. Also on trial were two officers Simkins was accused of bribing: Capt. John B. Monroe, former head of the 12th precinct, and Det. George C. Prather of the 13th District. Simkins was found guilty, as were both of the dirty cops.
Simkins was sentenced to 16 to 54 months for bribery. His health failed in prison, and after suffering a mild heart attack three years into his stint at Lorton Reformatory, Simkins was released.
Simkins died in 1973 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 73. His obituary in The Post noted “Simkins was widely regarded even by police as the dignified gentleman he appeared to be.”
He was so well known as a “successful” gambler that when the D.C. Council was discussing legalizing the numbers game rather than instituting a government-run lottery, former chairman John Hechinger said, “We might want to get ‘Whitetop’ Simkins to design it for us.”
At Simkins’s funeral at the Peoples Congregational Church on 13th Street NW, an attendee said, “Whitetop was always helping somebody. People thought he was a tough guy, but if you were honest with him and had a problem he’d do anything he could to help.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.