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Madame Stephanie St. Clair was a Harlem entrepreneur with a head for numbers and a skill for minting cash—even during the Great Depression. But like most African Americans in the early 20th century, she found herself barred from traditional, white-dominated financial businesses like banking or investing. Instead, she made her fortune in the underground economy of the numbers racket. Fearlessly facing down corrupt cops and violent mobsters alike, she became one of the racket’s most successful operators, while channeling her money into legitimate ventures and working to lift up others of her race.
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During the 1920s and ’30s, as millions of African Americans joined the Great Migration from the South to northern and midwestern cities, Harlem became the center of Black America, with a flourishing art, music and literary scene. As this Harlem Renaissance flourished, so did an illegal kind of lottery called the “policy” or the “numbers.” In it, players picked three numbers between 000 and 999, hoping they’d match numbers drawn daily from public sources like the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve’s end-of-day credit balance and others.
“Numbers gambling enabled many African Americans to supplement low wages and [attain] economic security,” writes LaShawn Harris, a Michigan State University history professor and the author of Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy. “Some enjoyed the opportunity of attaining wealth and financial independence. With their winnings, blacks paid bills, bought radios and clothes, and even started their own numbers operations.”
While the policy racket depended on a significant labor force of individuals to collect slips and pay winners, the most important person was the banker, who financed the whole operation. Stephanie St. Clair was one of Harlem’s most powerful bankers of the ’20s and early ’30s.
Little is known about St. Clair’s early life. While she was reportedly born in the French West Indies, it’s unclear exactly when and how she made her way to New York, and how she got the initial funds to launch her “bank.”
But in her heyday, according to Harris, St. Clair was earning $200,000 a year as the self-proclaimed “Queen of Numbers” with 40 to 50 runners, 10 comptrollers and several bodyguards. She lived in one of Harlem’s most prestigious buildings, home to luminaries such as W.E.B. DuBois and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, invested in other real estate and was known for her exotic, fashion-forward dresses, colorful turbans and flowing furs.
“Black Harlemites admired the fiery “Numbers Queen” because she employed countless black men and women as numbers runners, because she financially supported numerous legitimate black businesses and because she openly advocated racial advancement for African Americans and black immigrants,” Harris writes. Many also praised her unflinching resolve in standing up to white racketeers such as Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, who tried to muscle in on black policy bankers’ business.
On March 14, 1930, St. Clair was convicted and sentenced to eight months in a work camp for the possession of policy slips. After being released from prison a year later, she testified before the Seabury Commission, which was investigating corruption in New York City’s police department and justice system. St. Clair told the commission she had paid city cops a total of $6,600 to protect her runners from their scrutiny. Her testimony led to the suspension of more than a dozen police officers.
Since 1929, St. Clair had been publicly exposing police corruption in columns for the Amsterdam News, a prominent Black-owned paper. “I don’t understand how these police, who are supposed to be the protection of the people, can make raids for so-called policy slips when these same men are participants of the game themselves,” she said.
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St. Clair also placed ads in the Amsterdam News informing African Americans of their civil liberties. “TO THE MEMBERS OF MY RACE,” she wrote, “if officers meet you on the street and suspect you of anything, do not let them search you on the street, or do not let them take you to any hallway to be searched. If the police should ring your doorbell and you open your door, refuse to let them search your house unless they show you a search warrant.”
For most of the 1920s, African Americans ran Harlem’s policy racket. White racketeers paid it little mind, seeing policy as an unprofitable game played by poor blacks. Then in the ’30s, after the repeal of Prohibition slashed bootlegging profits, Dutch Schultz and other mobsters who’d gotten rich on illegal booze took notice of Black bankers’ healthy profits. Not only did they want a piece of the lucrative business, wrote Harris—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 bitter fight. According to Harris, she used her newspaper platform to encourage Black customers to buy policy slips from Black numbers runners, while she and her men undertook their own intimidation campaign against white store owners fronting for Schultz’s number drops. In retaliation, Schultz ordered hits on some of her men and placed a contract on St. Clair’s life, forcing her briefly into hiding in 1935. At one point, to escape Schultz’s henchmen, the Numbers Queen recalled having to hide in a cellar, covered in coal.
Their feud ended in 1935 when Schultz was shot dead by rival gang members. But by then, the mob’s infiltration of Harlem’s policy racket had solidified. “There were at least 30-odd Negro banks doing a good business when the mob moved in,” St. Clair said at the time. “I doubt there are half-dozen now.”
Meanwhile, in her battle with Schultz, St. Clair said she spent 820 days in jail and three-quarters of a million dollars.
By the mid-’30s, St. Clair had quit the numbers racket, but her trouble with the law continued. In 1936, she married Sufi Abdul Hamid, a controversial African American religious and labor leader. Two years into their marriage, St. Clair shot Hamid, suspecting him of an affair. Convicted of first-degree assault and possession of a concealed weapon, she received a 10-year sentence.
According to Harris, it’s unclear how much time she actually served for the shooting. But after her release, St. Clair lived mostly in seclusion in Harlem. She died in 1969 in a Long Island psychiatric facility.
The illegal, street-run numbers business would dominate Harlem’s economy for decades, generating an estimated $800 million to $1.5 billion annually by 1980, according to The New York Times. But that year, New York launched its first state-run daily lottery, spurring the racket’s decline—and a huge hit to local numbers-related jobs.
For St. Clair, the numbers game wasn’t just a lucrative illegal racket; it was always a means to contribute to a stable future for Black people in her community. For scholars and students of African American history, Harris writes, “St. Clair’s life symbolizes the often-untold narratives and experiences of black men and women who used the informal economy and crime as ways to creatively confront race, gender and class oppression.”