Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Excerpted from Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars (footnotes omitted) by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White. Copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia.

— Folk saying

Henry Moon sat on the edge of his chair in Madame Queen’s tastefully modern apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. In 1933, this fourteen-storey building was the tallest on Sugar Hill, Harlem’s ritziest area, which sloped north from 145th Street to 155th Street and was bounded by Amsterdam Avenue to the west and Edgecombe Avenue to the east. It was a few blocks of stately apartment buildings and uniformed doormen overlooking the Valley, as Central Harlem, densely populated with mostly poor blacks, was known. Quite simply, then, 409 Edgecombe was the best address in Harlem. At various times, W. E. B. Du Bois, the preeminent black intellectual and for decades editor of the Crisis, Walter White and Roy Wilkins, both officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the painter Aaron Douglas all lived there. So too did Madame Queen, who had amassed a fortune from “numbers,” the gambling game that, in the early 1920s, had taken Harlem by storm. She was a numbers “banker”—the most successful bankers were known as Kings and Queens—and it was scores of thousands of Valley residents wagering, and losing, their pennies and nickels that had enabled Madame Queen to reach the heights of Harlem. Some on Sugar Hill looked askance at the way this middle-aged woman had made her money, viewing her as little better than a racketeer, but Madame Queen never had any doubts about her position and shrugged off any such aspersions. Her regal presence and sense of entitlement made it abundantly clear that she belonged on Edgecombe Avenue.

Book: Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Author: Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Robertson, Stephen Garton

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication Date: 2010-05

Length: 320 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $26.95

Affiliate: (Harvard University Press)

Image: Queen stalked the generously proportioned room. She was “a slim figure, dark and sinister, clad as always in a pale gray dress.” Her hair was not straightened and “her eyes were flashing like orbs of polished anthracite.” As she strode up and down, Madame Queen spoke animatedly. Later on, Moon would remember “the words cascading from her lips in a furious stream.” Her audience was transfixed. There were two bodyguards, both of whom obviously carried guns and one of whom had just been released from prison. A young woman, trying to convince Madame Queen to hire her as a secretary, “sat speechless with terror, her lips quivering like jelly atop a throbbing motor.” Moon lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, letting the nicotine course through his veins and relax his body. After all, as he later wryly noted, this “was a time to appear nonchalant.”

“WHAM!” Madame Queen thumped her fist on the heavy plate glass covering the table. The young woman started, her timid face a shaking “muddy colored mass.” One gunman “blinked,” the other stared ahead impassively. Moon “flattened the cigaret held tightly in his fingers.” Madame Queen let loose a torrent of words: “To think that dey should put it in ze paper that goddam Dutchman keel one of my men. And put me on de spot? Me? Me? Don’t everybody know I ain’t scared nothing! Run me out of beezness? Me?” She laughed, and “her laughter was no less sinister than her boastings.”

A mesmerized Moon thought, “Christ, what a woman! What a story!” In all of his thirty-two years, the currently unemployed reporter had never seen anything quite like it, and he had hardly led a sheltered existence. It was only a few months since Moon had returned from the Soviet Union, where he had been part of the entourage accompanying the newly radicalized Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who had been invited to view the progress made since the Russian Revolution and to make a film about the “American Negro at work and play.” Moon, who knew Hughes from their teenage years in Cleveland, was particularly embittered when the Soviets abruptly canceled the film. Although Moon may have fancied himself a hard-bitten newspaperman familiar with the ways of the world, he was unprepared for the scene now playing out before his eyes.

Madame Queen not only behaved idiosyncratically—she also sounded unlike other residents of the Black Metropolis. Though everyone in Harlem believed she came from the Caribbean island of Martinique, she always claimed this wasn’t true. “Moi? Je suis française,” she would gesticulate to the inquisitive. She had arrived in Harlem in 1912, just over two decades before, but had burnished every skerrick of her French accent. Moon drolly noted that “even in her fury, she never forgot it.” And Madame Queen’s rage was now incandescent. She resumed her tirade: “I’ll show dese niggers how to hold on to ze game. I’ll show them how to fight back. I’ll show that Dutch Schultz he can’t muscle in and take ze numbers away from us like that. Yes, dey keel Harris. But me, I ain’t scared and dey know it. I ain’t like dese niggers.” As Moon unnecessarily explained to his readers, “Madame never considered herself a nigger.” After all, she was French.

“Take this. I’m going to write to that newspaper!” she snapped. The would-be secretary simply crumbled—“the words she tried to force through her lips were formless, meaningless sounds.” For the first time, the young woman’s terror penetrated Madame Queen’s consciousness. She laughed again. “What’s matter?” At this point, unable to bear the tension any longer, the newspaperman stepped in: “Let me write the letter.” “All right,” said Madame. “Take this.” But Moon wasn’t interested in taking dictation from anyone. “Never mind. I know what you want to say and how it should be said. I’ll write it. You sign it.” At last in his element, Moon ambled into the next room, lit a cigarette, and began to type.

To the Editor of the Amsterdam News:

In your issue of last week you wrote: “It is believed that the slain banker was one of a group of Negro operators which the ‘policy Queen’ has been trying to draw into a union to support her in her active crusade against the usurpers” and further that “the finger has been placed on” me.

This letter is to let you know that Martin L. Harris was in no way connected with any activity in which I may have been engaged. I assure you that had he been affiliated with me in any way, he would never have come to such an untimely and ill-fated end. The gangsters who killed Harris know better than to molest me or my associates.

Madame Queen read and reread the letter, nodded her head, and said, “I guess that’ll do.” Calmer now, she picked up her pen and in a characteristically confident hand signed, “STEPHANIE ST. CLAIR.”

Henry Moon’s awe was understandable. Madame Queen was one of the most extraordinary people ever to set foot in the Black Metropolis. She is mostly forgotten now, mentioned only in passing, if that, in histories of Harlem. But in her heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, Stephanie St. Clair, or Madame Queen, or occasionally Queenie, was a household name. No one who met her ever forgot the encounter.

Almost by happenstance, Henry Lee Moon had landed right in the middle of a life-and-death struggle for the heart and soul of the new black culture being forged in northern cities. Numbers came straight out of Harlem: it was invented there in 1920, or maybe 1921, and rapidly insinuated itself into the very fabric of everyday life. The rhythms of the game, with the morning rush of getting bets on before the books were closed at 10:00 a.m., followed by the less frenetic afternoons and early evenings, when winners were paid off and black men and women “doped out” what “gig” they would back the next day, fitted so well into the pulse of the streets that it seemed numbers had been around forever. Most of all, though, numbers took on a central role in the economic life of the African American areas of New York City. Indeed, those who controlled the numbers game possessed a license to print money. And there, of course, was the rub.

Dutch Schultz, perhaps the second best-known gangster in America (admittedly, he was a distant second to Chicago’s Al Capone), was the “Beer Baron of the Bronx”—but with Prohibition’s days numbered, he needed to diversify his criminal empire. Cashed up and lethal, the Dutchman made his move soon after Thanksgiving 1931. He was like a hawk among the pigeons. Over the ensuing months almost all of the Black Kings and Queens became, voluntarily or otherwise, “partners” with Dutch Schultz, and consequently most of the numbers profits flowed out of Harlem to the Bronx. The holdout was Stephanie St. Clair, who would never bend her knee to the Dutchman, a white interloper in her Harlem. In the early weeks of March 1933, things were coming rapidly to a head.

The real ‘Queen’ Stephanie St. Clair

There was something magnificent about the way Madame Queen fought the good fight. Desperately outnumbered and outgunned, she used every conceivable stratagem at her disposal. She leaked details of Schultz’s operations in Harlem to anyone who would listen, including the police, the newspapers, the district attorney, and the federal authorities, who, as a result, would make the Dutchman’s life a misery as they pursued him for unpaid income taxes. On several occasions, a black Carrie Nation, she had stormed into one of the countless white-owned and white-run stores on Seventh Avenue that wrote numbers and, as the Amsterdam News recorded, “smashed plate glass cases, snatched and destroyed innumerable policy slips, and warned the operators to ‘get out of Harlem.’ Admittedly, Madame Queen’s motives were slightly less exalted than those of the nineteenth-century temperance crusader, notorious for attempting to demolish bars with a hatchet. Rather than promoting the prohibition of numbers, Stephanie St. Clair was trying to ensure that Harlem residents placed their bets with her, or, failing that, at least with one of the other Black Kings or Queens. Probably, the result was inevitable—numbers was far too lucrative an invention to be left in the hands of African Americans. But Stephanie St. Clair was neither the first nor the last self-made millionaire to believe that willpower was enough to hold back the tide.

Of course, this was more than a struggle between two willful people squabbling over who could play in the sandbox. There were larger forces at work. The invention and phenomenal success of numbers was ultimately a product of the Great Migration that took place from 1915 to 1930. In those years well over a million black Southerners moved to the North, creating large concentrations of African Americans in northern cities, most famously in New York’s Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago, but in a host of other urban areas as well. The Great Migration transformed black life and race relations in America. If the black experience of the nineteenth century was principally southern, rural, and for much of the time enslaved, that of the twentieth century would be increasingly northern, urban, and free.

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