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Wild Bunch

Prickly Racial Politics And Murderous Mafia Plots Amid Baltimore's Banana Wars

Christopher Myers
Anthony Lanasa and Leslie Gordon Goffe visit the Inner Harbor, where their ancestors once imported bananas together
Antonio Lanasa and his wife
Alfred Constantine Goffe
Local newspaper coverage of the Di Giorgio case, including portraits of the victim (above) and the "black hand" suspects (below).

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/9/2006

They're an oddly mismatched pair of Inner Harbor tourists: Anthony Lanasa, the tall, white-haired 68-year-old from Richmond, Va., with his subtle Southern drawl, and Leslie Gordon Goffe, a British-born 47-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee and lilting accent of his own.

Then again, it's a sunny afternoon along the Harborplace promenade, and camera-totting, stroller-pushing people of all stripes are out and about. A man in a gaudy, felt top hat crafts balloon sculptures for some giggling preteens while purple and green paddle boats bob and weave offshore.

This twosome, however, is connected to a different waterfront and a far different time. They are bound by the banana.

Lanasa grew up working in the family fruit business and has no trouble seeing past the day-tripper trappings of a waterfront long given over to leisure pursuits. His Inner Harbor was home to banana-laden steamships and sweaty stevedores, not Banana Republic outlets.

"The banana pier was right over there in front of the aquarium," Lanasa says, squinting into the July sun--and back through the years to the 1950s. "I had to come down here and meet the banana boat. Conveyer belts brought the fruit out of the hull. They could load 50 freight cars and 50 tractor-trailers at one time. They'd put a stem of bananas on a man's shoulders, might weigh as much 100 pounds.

"No, there was nothing down here," he adds after a pause. "Nothing but bananas."

For over half a century, Baltimore helped propel the banana from curious tropical exotic to America's most popular fruit. And this is where Goffe comes in. A century ago this very year, Goffe's great-grandfather Alfred Constantine Goffe joined with Lanasa's grandfather, Antonio Lanasa--a black Jamaican and a white Italian-American immigrant--to form one of the most prosperous banana-importing businesses on the East Coast. At a time when Jim Crow laws openly sanctified racism, the Baltimore-based Lanasa and Goffe Steamship and Importing Co. thumbed its nose at segregated society to sail full steam ahead.

"They wanted to be their own captains of industry--these two outsiders who came together in defiance of the way things ran," Goffe says. "That they moved though Baltimore as friends and as businessmen is extraordinary."

Goffe grew up in London, where his Jamaican-born parents and other island-connected relatives often spoke of a larger-than-life ancestor they called Freddy the "Banana King."

"Elders in the family told us about Baltimore," Goffe says. "They said I must go to Baltimore. I must go to Maryland--the family history is buried there."

As a New York-based reporter for BBC World Service Radio, Goffe has made many trips to Mobtown to explore family lore, and much of what he's uncovered from here to the hills of Jamaica turns up in the forthcoming book When Banana Was King, due out this fall from Jamaica's LMH Publishing. Goffe's research for the book led him to Lanasa, who now runs his own fruit business in Virginia, and he invited him up to Baltimore today for some last-minute research and reminiscing.

What else has he learned about the Goffe/Lanasa pairing of yore? Only that the two were arrested for being in cahoots with a pack of proto-Mafia murderers trying to blow up a banana-trade rival with dynamite.

"In business today, you don't necessarily think of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates going at it with cleavers," Goffe says.

But the back-in-the-day banana business in Baltimore was rough trade, indeed.

 

Among the Victorian-Age wonders crowding Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition--a 56-ton steam engine, a new contraption called the typewriter--was an exotic tropical edible wrapped in tinfoil and selling for the then-precious price of a dime each. The banana had made its formal U.S. debut. By century's end, the development of refrigerated steamships engendered a banana-import explosion, with sultry Jamaica pegged as a perfect place to grow the lofty plants. (Often mistaken for trees, the banana is actually an herbaceous plant related to the lily and orchid.) What was once pricey became pedestrian. Or, as Virginia Scott Jenkins writes in Bananas: An American History, the banana went from being "linked to romantic adventure and associated with palm trees, warm weather, and perpetual vacation" to just "the cheapest fruit in the grocery store."

Goffe might have grown up in decidedly untropical South London--as he says, "15 minutes walk from the Houses of Parliament"--but the steamy banana climes were never far away. Family lore, he says, revolved around a "fierce figure who took on racism and Jim Crow" while building a banana empire: one Alfred Constantine Goffe. This singular figure gave the Goffe clan wealth and prominence when blacks were but a generation or two removed from slavery.

"It all intrigued me," Goffe says. "I felt as soon as possible I had to make the journey--a journey to my roots, in a way."

He started on the banana-roots trek after coming to New York in 1979 to attend Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor's in English and a master's in journalism. After five years working at the Guardian newspaper back in London, he joined the BBC in 1990 and has lived in West Orange, N.J., for six years now (long enough to become a Yankees fan, he says). He began the book three years ago.

Not all of his relatives, however, were so keen on having the family lore so deeply explored--and then publicly exposed. Goffe says some family members began to express apprehension over his explorations. A cousin wrote him to say that his book would bring "shame to the family."

Part of the familial discomforts concerned Goffe's Jamaican great, great, great-grandfather--a free black man who once owned his great, great, great-grandmother, a black slave. Goffe learned that free blacks once owned perhaps as many as one in six of Jamaica's 310,000 blacks slaves.

"It just seemed absolutely bizarre and shocking," Goffe says, adding that the discovery helped explain the web of "secrets and lies" that had been thrown up around the family's past.

When Alfred Constantine Goffe was born in 1863, slavery had been over in Jamaica for nearly 30 years and the family was comfortably ensconced in the ranks of the "plantocracy" of land-owning blacks. Young Freddy Goffe attended a tony boarding school where he was a standout on the cricket field. By 1897 he and his brothers were running a fruit business out of a wharf complex in Port Maria, the largest city in Jamaica's northeastern St. Mary Parish. A pier where black slaves were once bought and sold was now run by black men buying bananas. The "Day-O" chant Harry Belafonte made famous in the "Banana Boat Song" might have rung out here, as this laborer's call is said to have originated in St. Mary.

In 1901, the entrepreneurial Alfred Goffe used his considerable negotiating skills to organize St. Mary's first fruit growers association, stitching together the farmers not already bound to supplying the Boston-based United Fruit Co., the literal top banana of importers. Seeking a steady American banana buyer, he courted Antonio Lanasa and his Italian Fruit and Importing Co., which had been one of the more successful fruit traders toiling away in United Fruit's formidable shadow until the collapse of a Baltimore bank put the firm in financial hot water. Lanasa was a shrewd banana man nonetheless, and he (along with Goffe) knew that fresh access to a steady supply of bananas could jump-start the ailing company. Goffe invited the Baltimorean to Jamaica to address the association. Lanasa told the largely black crowd of banana growers that "Italian blood will stick to you." An odd turn of phrase, but just part of a speech whose overall message was that Italian-Americans would treat their black business partners fair and square.

"Saying `We will not treat you as other white Americans would treat you' is about as radical a statement from a white man as you could get in 1906," Goffe remarks.

When Anthony Lanasa, himself a veteran fruit man, looks back on his namesake ancestor's motives, he sees realism more than radicalism. "My grandfather, he wanted to make money," he says. "I guess he didn't give a damn who it was with."

A deal was inked, and Antonio Lanasa began bringing in boatloads of Jamaican bananas, an event which didn't go unnoticed by Lanasa's arch rival in Baltimore: fruit dealer Joseph Di Giorgio. That both men shared similar rags-to-riches résumés--born just miles apart form each other in Sicily, immigrating alone as teenagers, toiling their way to the top--did nothing to ease the acrimony between the pair as they each fought to become Baltimore's biggest banana man. The city's port was the fourth busiest in the country then, and all manner of tropical fruit landed here--loaded into railcars and rolled out to eager eaters in the Midwest and beyond.

In 1905, Di Giorgio offered what appeared to be an olive branch to his rivals, inviting Antonio Lanasa and Alfred Goffe to join his newly formed Atlantic Fruit Co. so that together they could topple the mighty United Fruit. The pair swallowed their pride and agreed, selling the Italian Fruit and Importing Co., with which Goffe was a major stakeholder, to Di Giorgio with the promise of becoming directors in the combined firm. But that was not to be. A few months into the deal, Di Giorgio secretly sold controlling interest in Atlantic to none other than United Fruit. The conditions of this sale were simple: Lanasa, a one-time United employee some in the firm still viewed as a turncoat, had to go. And Goffe had to be shown the door, too. United Fruit wasn't about to have a black man on its board.

Summarily dismissed, and no doubt thoroughly pissed, Lanasa and Goffe took matters in their own hands and launched the Lanasa and Goffe Steamship and Importing Co. in 1906. Starting with but two leased steamships plying the waters between St. Mary Parish and Baltimore, they would soon command a veritable fleet of eight steamers. Goffe mainly handled the Jamaican end of the business but also made frequent trips to Baltimore. He is even listed in the city directories of the time, under Lanasa's address at 411 S. Hanover St. He also stayed at the Eutaw House Hotel (formerly at the corner of Eutaw and Baltimore Streets), despite the hostelry's "whites only" policy.

Moneyed, educated, smartly dressed, and with an island accent that likely seemed exotic to Baltimoreans of the day, Freddy Goffe was an anomaly in city with distinctly drawn color lines--a black man who fell into a gray area. He moved within the Caucasian circles of power, on good terms with prominent bankers and businessmen.

"In a sense, people didn't know what to make of the Caribbean and the West Indies, and whether or not you thought of it as just British," Leslie Goffe says. "He would certainly not have confused anyone--a white American would have recognized him as a black man."

And perhaps the white world saw green instead of black. The Lanasa/Goffe fruit pairing was very fruitful, moving almost 1.5 million bananas through Baltimore in their first year after uniting. Again, Joe Di Giorgio couldn't help but notice. The competing banana firms had side-by-side offices in the first block of East Pratt Street and shared docking space on an Inner Harbor pier. It was not uncommon for rank-and-file laborers from the rival firms to have pitched battles along the wharves: fists, knives, even guns came into play.

But the violence that rattled the Baltimore banana trade didn't transpire on the rough-and-tumble docks but in a back-porch lavatory in then-suburban Walbrook.

 

Before the term "mafia" had become common coinage in America, there was the dreaded Black Hand. This criminal gang--or group of like-operating gangs--traced its roots to Sicily and used extortion to prey on Italian-Americans of means. The threatening letter was the usual gambit: Pay this fee or face unpleasant consequences.

When, on a clear December night in 1907, an explosion rocked the rear of Joe Di Giorgio's Walbrook home, the Black Hand was quickly blamed. After all, Di Giorgio was among the many Baltimore Italians who had received threatening letters from the group and police found bits of fuse at the site. The Sun dubbed the bombing "Daring Black Hand Outrage" but also concluded that it was "bungling work." Damage from what was suspected to have been two sticks of dynamite was relegated to a lavatory and the kitchen and pantry. Di Giorgio wasn't even home at the time, and the only living things directly threatened by the blast were three parrots. And they flapped away unhurt. (Di Giorgio's family and servants went unharmed in their beds far from the blast.)

Bungling or no, details of the dynamiting were splashed across newspapers, which seemed keen on sensationalizing Black Hand doings The explosion caused considerable consternation among Baltimore's well-heeled Italians, and the police placed armed guards outside the homes of a few who feared they could be next. But then the real bomb came about month later, after police apprehended a Black Hander named Salvatore Lupo in Buffalo, N.Y., who confessed to being part of the Di Giorgio dynamiting. He said rival banana traders Lanasa and Goffe were behind it all. "If we kill Di Giorgio, I will be the banana king of Baltimore," Lanasa told Goffe when planning the attack. Or so said Lupo.

This was not the best of times for a black man to get arrested. The front page of the Jan. 12, 1907, Sun carried a brief story describing how a "worthless" "colored" man was accused of killing a white man in Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore. White "indignation" was at such a "high pitch" that the sheriff moved the suspect to a neighboring town's jail. Even so, the article casually concluded, "it would not be surprising if an attempt were made to get the negro out of the jail and string him up on the nearest tree."

Such was the racial climate when, in that same issue of The Sun, a lengthy article discussed the arrests of Lanasa and Goffe for attempted murder. Goffe was haughty and indignant when the constables came for him, proclaiming that he could "command the ships of England to come here to vindicate me." It didn't help his case that he had arrived in Baltimore on this latest visit only 10 hours before the bombing. After a night in a dingy cell, Goffe's proud veneer cracked during his arraignment. The Sun said he gave way to "[s]obbing as though his heart would break." A no less frustrated Lanasa vowed to fight and was released on bail after his aged mother placed her Baltimore Street home up as surety. Lacking such local holdings to offer up himself, Goffe was looking at another night in jail until Lanasa's brothers placed some of their Baltimore properties up on his behalf. Italian blood had stuck, indeed.

The pair's banana bucks bought a crackerjack legal defense team that included former Baltimore mayor Thomas Hayes and a U.S. congressman. Curiously, in this age of not-infrequent lynchings, Goffe's race never seemed to come up. Newspaper coverage described his jaunty attire and odd accent but never called him out as a "negro" or "colored." (One person who did was Lupo, who referred to the Jamaican as "the nigger" in his testimony.) Goffe was alleged to have been the one assigned to deliver $10,000 to the Black Hand after Di Giorgio was blown to pieces. The problem the court ultimately had with this take on the caper concerned language. Lupo admitted that all Black Hand dealings where done in Italian, and Goffe spoke only Island-tinged English. Soon enough the case against Goffe was dismissed, leaving Italian-speaking Lanasa alone to face judgment.

When the trial opened in March, an armed guard was placed outside the courtroom door out of the fear of Black Hand retribution. Lanasa, Goffe, and even Di Giorgio himself took the stand as each tried to spin the deep-seated fruit rivalry his way. It didn't help Lanasa's cause that his banana firm had employed Lupo and a number of other Black Hand gangsters ultimately connected to the crime as laborers. It all ended rather anticlimactically, however, when Lanasa was found guilty--not of attempting to kill Di Giorgio but of trying to destroy his property. This charge was later dismissed as well, without Lanasa ever seeing the inside of a jail cell again.

Looking back nearly a century later, and after years spent researching his plucky ancestor, Leslie Goffe concludes that the pair could well have had a hand in the Black Hand business after all.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they had helped to hatch the scheme and used the Black Hand to pressure a business rival," he says. "They would do whatever they needed to do to increase the profit margin."

When Anthony Lanasa reflects on it, he figures United Fruit might have been behind it all--just another way for the giant fruit machine to gobble up more market share.

 

The Lanasa and Goffe Steamship and Importing Co. never again made the headlines. It just imported bananas. But while the partnership survived the Black Hand imbroglio, by World War I it was beginning to fray. Wartime shipping restrictions and some questionable business decisions contributed to the firm's unraveling in 1915.

Alfred Goffe remained in the fruit trade, even joining United Fruit for a while. He also returned to the courtroom, this time in Jamaica, where he was charged with murder. And this time there was no doubt as to his guilt: He shot a man for trying to steal coconuts from one of his land holdings. In the end, Goffe claimed self-defense and got off. He died a major Jamaica landowner in 1951.

Leslie Goffe admits he has mixed feelings about the ancestor he's come to understand was also stern taskmaster and a skinflint boss.

"I'm proud of what he achieved, especially in the times that he achieved it, facing racism and probably physical threats," he says. "I think that took extraordinary bravery. I'm not so proud of the man himself. He was, as any robber baron, concerned solely with the bottom line."

Antonio Lanasa also continued in the business of buying and selling bananas, actually partnering with Alfred Goffe's brother Alec for a few years. He eventually moved uptown to fine house in North Baltimore and died a wealthy and respected man in 1953.

Joseph Di Giorgio, perhaps weary of the hassles of fruit importation, started buying vast tracks of California farmland in 1919 and ultimately abandoned the banana trade to become a domestic produce tycoon. There's a town named after him southeast of Bakersfield, and when he passed on in 1951 his Baltimore News Post obituary called his life a "storybook romance of commerce."

Oh, and his rambling Walbrook frame house partially blown up back in 1907 was demolished for good some years later to make way for rowhouses.

The Goffe saga takes a final curious turn in the early 1940s, when Alec Goffe and his much younger wife, Lesline, bought a whitewashed two-story house at 56 Hope Road in Jamaica's St. Andrew Parish. When Island Records founder Chris Blackwell bought the house from Lesline in the early 1970s, he allowed her to stay in one of the property's outbuildings long after her husband had passed away and a tenant had moved into the main house--one with a head full of dreadlocks and a preternatural taste for marijuana. His name was Bob Marley, and he would go on to cut many records at the Hope Road house.

Leslie Goffe says this, too, is woven into the family lore: "The snobbish relatives would scoff and say, `Can you imagine some Rasta boys smoking ganja in our family member's house? He would have turned over in his grave.'"

By Marley's day, Jamaica had been beaten in the fruit-growing game by the "banana republics" in Central America, where United Fruit--today's Chiquita brand--moved most of its operations. St. Mary, Jamaica's richest parish during the banana boom years, is now its poorest.

And, of course, the banana boats don't call at Baltimore's Inner Harbor anymore. In the late 1950s, Baltimore's banana operations shifted to a more mechanized facility in Locust Point. (No more weighty banana stems slung on a stevedore's shoulders). But for some years now, the Johnny-come-lately Port of Wilmington has led the way in tropical fruit imports.

Americans ate about 30 pounds of bananas per person last year, and not one of them came through the Port of Baltimore.

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