Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Robertson, Stephen Garton
Cicely Tyson plays Stephanie St. Clair in Hoodlum (1997)

Those who controlled the numbers game in Harlem possessed a license to print money. And there, of course, was the rub... Desperately outnumbered and outgunned, she used every conceivable stratagem at her disposal.

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.

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