Frank “Black Caesar” Matthews (born February 13, 1944) is a major heroin and cocaine trafficker who operated throughout the eastern seaboard during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the peak of his career he operated in 21 states and supplied major dealers throughout every region of the country. Although there is more attention paid to other drug kingpins of the era, Frank Matthews is said by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be one of the most significant traffickers of the time. He led a flamboyant lifestyle, with large sable mink coats, prime seats at major sporting events, luxury vehicles, and regular trips to Las Vegas where he was treated like a king.
Matthews would also become known for hosting a major African-American drug dealers “summit” in Atlanta in 1971. The attendee list, gathered by DEA surveillance, was a who’s who of most major African-American and Hispanic dealers throughout the country; they were all there to discuss how to break the Italian Mafia’s control of heroin importation so that black drug dealers would not have to rely on them in the future.
Matthews was born towards the end of World War II in Durham, North Carolina. His mother died when he was four years old and he was raised by his aunt, Marzella Steele, the wife of a Durham police lieutenant. Nicknamed “Pee Wee”, Matthews was described as bright and curious; nevertheless, he dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He served a year for assault in the juvenile reformatory at Raleigh. On his release, he moved to Philadelphia, where he worked as a numbers writer. He was arrested in 1963 and avoided conviction by agreeing to leave Philadelphia. He moved to the Bedford Stuyvesant area of New York City and became a barber, collecting numbers as he had in Philadelphia. Matthews was now large and muscular; he became both a collector and an enforcer. This gained him the experience and cash he needed to enter illegal drug dealing.
Matthews quickly grew tired of the numbers game after realizing that what he made in a year could be made in weeks in the drug business. He began making plans to transition into the heroin business. In the early 1960s, the main supply of wholesale heroin was the Italian Mafia; Matthews knew he would have to gain favor with someone connected to get a steady, reliable connection from which to base his drug empire. Matthews was able to not only approach but gain an audience before the Gambino family and Bonanno family, both part of the Five Families that have controlled organized crime in New York City since the 1930s.
However, both turned the young Matthews down. From his days in the numbers game he knew of “Spanish Raymond” Márquez, a prolific Harlem numbers operator. Márquez put him in contact with “El Padrino”, the New York Cuban Mafia godfather Rolando Gonzalez Nuñez, a major Cuban cocaine supplier, shortly before Gonzalez fled to Venezuela because of an upcoming indictment in the United States. Before fleeing, Gonzalez sold Matthews his first kilo of cocaine for $20,000, with a promise to supply more in the future.
This relationship would expand into a very lucrative and expansive drug trafficking network. Gonzalez began sending the young drug dealer large loads of cocaine and heroin from South America at fair prices.[clarification needed] Matthews expanded on this and, within a year, was one of the major players in the New York drug business. Realizing the need for diversification, Matthews would continually seek out new sources of supply for narcotics, willing to do business with anyone as long as the product was sufficiently pure.
By the early 1970s, the Matthews organization was handling multimillion-dollar loads of heroin. According to the DEA, “Matthews controlled the cutting, packaging, and sale of heroin in every major East Coast city.” For example, in New York he operated two massive drug mills in Brooklyn: one located at 925 Prospect Place, nicknamed the “Ponderosa”, and the other at 106 East 56th Street. Both locations were heavily fortified and secured, with walls reinforced with steel and concrete and protected by guards with machine guns. Besides controlling the retail sale of heroin, the organization supplied other major dealers throughout the East Coast with multi-kilogram shipments for up to $26,000 per kilogram.
In 1971, Matthews invited major African-American and Hispanic drug traffickers throughout the country to attend a meeting in Atlanta. The DEA got wind of this and monitored who attended. It was a “Who’s Who” of major drug traffickers, a testament to the respect Matthews commanded because of his vast drug empire. The topic of the meeting was how to import heroin without the Mafia. Those present decided to build stronger independent relationships with the Corsicans and possibly Cubans. In addition, they agreed to diversify their product to include cocaine, which was becoming available in massive quantities.
This gathering of major drug traffickers throughout the United States is significant because it represented the changing nature of the drug business. Whereas, previously, the Italians controlled the importing and wholesaling of narcotics, therefore controlling who could and could not advance past them, now others were establishing their own pipelines. Before, the Mafia asserted behind-the-scenes control of the business while African-Americans sold and used the drugs in their cities; now the black dealers established connections and took control of their neighborhoods. This later evolved to include not just black people controlling the business, but also local gangs of black people eliminating out-of-town black suppliers trying to control their neighborhoods from a distance.
Matthews learned this lesson the hard way in Philadelphia. In Atlantic City, the Philadelphia Black Mafia killed Tyrone “Mr. Millionaire” Palmer, Matthews’ main dealer in Philadelphia, at a “Club Harlem” packed with 800 people. No one was prosecuted for the crime and none of the 799 potential witnesses came forward. Three of his top lieutenants in the city were murdered by the Black Mafia.
In 1973, the DEA arrested Matthews in Las Vegas, but he paid bail then disappeared. Matthews allegedly took 15 to 20 million dollars with him and fled the country, and was never seen again, leaving behind his common-law wife, their three sons, and their Staten Island mansion.