Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?
Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.
I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.
Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.