Playing the Numbers

Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

by Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Robertson, Stephen Garton

2 August 2010

Cicely Tyson plays Stephanie St. Clair in Hoodlum (1997) 

She Would Never Bend Her Knee

And of course the whole drama of who would control numbers was played out against the backdrop of the Great Depression, which was particularly devastating in Harlem. Indeed, Martin Harris was shot and Moon witnessed Madame Queen’s stellar performance in her apartment in the first few days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in office. Newspapers across the United States ran blaring headlines about the banking crisis, bank closures, and enforced bank holidays, while the New York Age and the Amsterdam News almost eerily featured stories about Harlem’s own homegrown banking crisis. As it happened, FDR, with his first fireside chat and decisive legislation restored confidence in the nation’s banking system in very short order. But the struggle for control of Harlem’s numbers banks would take considerably longer to sort out. This book is our attempt to put numbers into such larger contexts, to explain why this gambling game was so important, and to use it as a prism through which to examine African American culture in the most important city in the world.

Stephanie St. Clair was one of those people who seized history by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake.

That is all right and proper, and in due course we will get to it, but for the moment let us return to the two hellions lunging at each other’s throats and to a time and place where individuals knew that they could make a difference. Stephanie St. Clair was one of those people who seized history by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake, and even Dutch Schultz in his more introspective moments sensed that he too was shaping history. Central casting could hardly have come up with a more unlikely pair: a West Indian who wanted to be French, a spitfire of a woman who loved nothing better than dressing to the nines and attending the opera or a concert at Carnegie Hall; and a diminutive white gangster, always garbed in cheap, ill-fitting suits and known as the Dutchman, a man who, with more than a modicum of self-identification, enjoyed reading about Napoleon. This odd couple feuded for control of the most lucrative franchise that had ever come out of Harlem, in a deadly struggle that ultimately would break both of them.

And what of the letter that Henry Moon wrote for St. Clair? The Amsterdam News, one of Harlem’s weekly African American newspapers, published it the following week, on March 22, 1933. It was a time far different from our own. Newspapers still counted for a lot in the early 1930s. In New York City alone, there were close to a dozen dailies vying for a share of the market. Many Harlem residents did in fact read the Sun or the Mirror, but those interested in a black perspective and some sort of coverage of Harlem could read the two long-running and established weeklies, the Amsterdam News and New York Age, or others such as the Negro World or the Interstate Tattler. Madame Queen, an inveterate writer of letters to the editor, knew the power of the press. Indeed, it was her belief in the importance of newspapers that had brought Henry Moon to her apartment in the first place. There were rumors that she was going to start her own newspaper, as a means of persuading ordinary black gamblers to support her struggle to oust the white intruders. The out-of-work Moon had paid her a visit to try “to get her to be an angel for a proposed newspaper venture.”

Henry Moon wrote a brief unpublished piece about his meeting with St. Clair and entitled it “Policy Queen.” Near the top of the first page, he typed in a subhead—“Personal Participation”—as if acknowledging that this was the stuff of history and that he had not only been a witness but also contributed to the way things had unfolded. And if that was his intention, he was right. Who said that you had to go to the Soviet Union or some such place to be at the center of things? This was Harlem, the Negro Mecca, the Black Metropolis, the black capital of the world. And who could argue with the recently coined old Negro adage, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia”? Stephanie St. Clair was a Policy Queen, a Numbers Queen—and back in the day, on the Harlem streets that Henry Moon knew and loved, these were titles that meant something.


L/R: Stephen Robertson, Graham White, Shane White, and Stephen Garton

Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White are professors in the History Department at the University of Sydney.  An interactive website allows readers to further explore the streets of Harlem.

© Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Robertson, Stephen Garton

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media


Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article