Madame Stephanie St. Clair was a Harlem entrepreneur with a head for numbers and a skill for minting money, even during the Great Depression. But like most African Americans in the early 1920sand century, it found itself excluded from traditional white-dominated financial activities such as banking or investing. Instead, she made her fortune in the underground economy of numbers racketeering. Fearlessly taking on corrupt cops and violent mobsters, she became one of racketeers’ most successful operators, while funneling her money into legitimate businesses and striving to uplift others of her race.
During the 1920s and 1930s, as millions of African Americans joined the Great Migration from the South to cities in the North and Midwest, Harlem became the center of black America, with an arts, music and literary scene flourishing. As this Harlem revival flourished, a kind of illegal lottery called “politics” or “numbers” also developed. In it, players chose three numbers between 000 and 999, hoping they would match numbers drawn daily from public sources such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve’s end-of-day credit balance, and others.
“The numbers game has allowed many African Americans to supplement low wages and [attain] economic security,” writes LaShawn Harris, professor of history at Michigan State University and author of Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners: Black Women in New York’s Underground Economy. “Some relished the opportunity to achieve wealth and financial independence. With their earnings, black people paid bills, bought radios and clothes, and even started their own number operations.
While political racketeering depended on a large workforce of individuals to collect slips and pay winners, the most important person was the banker, who financed the entire operation. Stephanie St. Clair was one of Harlem’s most powerful bankers of the 1920s and early 1930s.
A colorful figure with a mysterious past
Little is known about St. Clair’s early life. While she is believed to have been born in the French West Indies, it is unclear when and how she traveled to New York, and how she obtained the initial funds to launch her “bank”.
But at her peak, according to Harris, St. Clair earned $200,000 a year as a self-proclaimed “numbers queen” with 40 to 50 runners, 10 controllers and several bodyguards. She lived in one of Harlem’s most prestigious buildings, home to such luminaries as WEB DuBois and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, invested in other real estate, and was known for her fashionable exotic dresses, his colorful turbans and flowing furs.
“Black Harlemites admired the feisty ‘Numbers Queen’ because she employed countless black men and women as number runners, because she financially supported many legitimate black businesses, and because she openly championed racial advancement. African Americans and black immigrants,” Harris wrote. Many also praised his unwavering determination to stand up to white racketeers such as Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, who tried to meddle in the affairs of black political bankers.
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St. Clair exposes police corruption
On March 14, 1930, St. Clair was convicted and sentenced to eight months in a labor camp for possessing police slips. After being released from prison a year later, she testified before the Seabury Commission, which was investigating corruption in the New York police department and justice system. St. Clair told the commission it paid city cops a total of $6,600 to shield its riders from scrutiny. His testimony led to the suspension of more than a dozen police officers.
Since 1929, St. Clair had publicly denounced police corruption in columns for the Amsterdam News, a major black-owned newspaper. “I don’t understand how these police officers, who are supposed to be protecting the people, can raid for so-called political slip-ups when these same men are in on the game themselves,” she said.
St. Clair also placed advertisements in the Amsterdam News educate African Americans about their civil liberties. “TO MEMBERS OF MY RACE,” she wrote, “if any officers meet you on the street and suspect you of anything, don’t let them search you on the street, or don’t let them take you away in a hallway to be searched. If the police ring your doorbell and you open your door, refuse to let them search your home unless they show you a search warrant.
A violent turf war with mobster ‘Dutch’ Schultz
For most of the 1920s, African Americans ran Harlem’s political racketeering. White racketeers paid little heed to it, viewing politics as an unprofitable game played by poor black people. Then, in the 1930s, after the repeal of Prohibition had reduced bootlegging profits, Dutch Schultz and other gangsters who had made their fortunes from illegal liquor noticed the substantial profits made by black bankers. Not only did they want a piece of the lucrative business, Harris wrote, they wanted to own it. And they weren’t afraid to use violence if black operators didn’t fold or hand over a substantial cut.
St. Clair put up a tough fight. According to Harris, she used her newspaper platform to encourage black customers to buy police slips from black number runners, while she and her men embarked on their own campaign of intimidation against shop owners. whites promoting Schultz’s number drops. In retaliation, Schultz ordered beatings on some of his men and placed a contract on St. Clair’s life, briefly forcing her into hiding in 1935. At one point, to escape Schultz’s henchmen, the queen of numbers remembered having to hide in a cellar, covered in coal.
Their feud ended in 1935 when Schultz was shot by rival gang members. But by then, the mob’s infiltration of Harlem’s political racketeering had solidified. “There were at least 30 black banks doing good business when the mob moved in,” St. Clair said at the time. “I doubt there are half a dozen now.”
Meanwhile, in her battle with Schultz, St. Clair said she spent 820 days in jail and three-quarters of a million dollars.
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Life after numbers
By the mid-1930s, St. Clair had stopped the numbers racketeering, but his run-ins with the law continued. In 1936, she married Sufi Abdul Hamid, a controversial African-American religious and labor leader. Two years after their marriage, St. Clair shot Hamid, suspecting him of an affair. Convicted of first-degree assault and possession of a concealed weapon, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
According to Harris, it’s unclear how long she actually served for filming. But after his release, St. Clair lived mostly in isolation in Harlem. She died in 1969 in a mental institution on Long Island.
The Legacy of the Queen of Numbers
The illegal street number business would dominate Harlem’s economy for decades, generating an estimated $800 million to $1.5 billion a year by 1980, according to The New York Times. But that year, New York launched its first state-run daily lottery, leading to racketeering waning and a huge blow to local number-related jobs.
For St. Clair, the numbers game was not just a lucrative illegal racket; it has always been a way to contribute to a stable future for black people in his community. For scholars and students of African American history, Harris writes, “St. Clair’s life symbolizes the often untold stories and experiences of black men and women who have used the informal economy and crime as means of creatively confront racial, gender and class oppression.