The Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s and ‘30s was a hotbed of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, politics, and scholarship. It gave us luminaries like Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, W.E.B. DuBois and Jessie Redmon Fauset. But for many, when it came to Black identity, community and the everyday experience of Black people, a woman named Stephanie St. Clair loomed large.
Born of French-African descent, she was well-educated and tough-talking. She swore like a sailor and dressed to the nines in turbans and flowing furs, carving out a piece of Harlem’s street economy and making a name, not to mention a fortune, for herself running the “bank” behind Harlem’s huge numbers racket. Some called her “Queenie” while many respectfully called her “Madame St. Clair.” Either way, she was the undisputed Queen of Harlem’s Numbers Game.
“Playing the numbers” was something everyone could do. Everybody played, from respectable schoolteachers to disreputable pool sharks. And just like today’s Lottery, hitting the number could turn your life around. You could start a business, get the bill collector off your back, or send your kid to a better school. While today’s Lottery games are state-sanctioned and legal, playing the numbers back in the day was illegal.
Details about Stephanie St. Clair’s early life are murky. She was born in the French West Indies to a single mother whose aim was to provide her with a good education. But when St. Clair was 15 her mother became ill, and she left school. After her mother died, she left the West Indies for Montreal, Canada. Some biographers believe she was part of the 1910-1911 Caribbean Domestic Scheme that brought 100 French Indian women to Quebec as domestic workers, many of whom remained for a time at New York’s Ellis Island. But by 1912 she had arrived from Montreal to New York, fluent in both French and English, to settle in Harlem.
A Gangland Life
Not long after, she fell into the world of New York City’s fabled gangs — specifically the 40 Thieves, who specialized in extortion and theft. As testament to her “powers of persuasion,” she was somehow able to infiltrate the gang and become one of its leaders. Within 10 years of her arrival, she had amassed $10,000 and enough street experience to leave the gang and set up her own numbers bank. By her heyday in the 1930s, she was the only woman running a numbers game in Harlem with an estimated worth over $500,000 (in today’s money about $9,135,000). She lived most of her life in an apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, which was also home to some of Harlem’s most prestigious residents, including W.E.B. DuBois and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
While St. Clair used the rackets to enrich herself, she also worked in her own way to uplift the Black community. A trusted local employer, she hired Harlem residents as numbers runners, comptrollers, bodyguards, cooks, chauffeurs and property managers. And in an era when few banks accepted Black customers, the numbers game was one way African Americans could invest.
Civil Rights Advocate
She also advocated for civil rights for Blacks and immigrants, encouraging campaigns supporting Black-owned businesses decades before the #BuyBlack movement in early 2020. And she wasn’t shy when it came to using the press. She ran opinion pieces offering Harlem residents legal advice — she denounced police brutality and encouraged Blacks to refuse police searches without seeing a warrant. She also fought for Black voting rights.
Her neighbors knew what she did for a living, and so did the New York Police Department. St. Clair was arrested for possession of numbers slips and being a numbers banker — charges she readily admitted — in December 1929 and sentenced to the workhouse on New York City’s Welfare Island for eight months.
Far from being chastened by her time in custody, she emerged almost a year later defiant and determined to upend the system by unmasking the NYPD’s close ties to, and profits from, the numbers racket. Appearing before a special commission investigating corruption in the Bronx and Manhattan Courts and the NYPD wearing a mink coat and stylish hat, she testified about making payments of $100 and $500 to a lieutenant in the Sixth Division while paying police a total of $6,000 to avoid arrest. As a result, 13 police officers were suspended from duty.
Dutch Schultz’s Nemisis
But the New York Police Department wasn’t Madame St. Clair’s biggest worry. That honor went to a man named Arthur Flegenheimer — better known in the 1930s as Dutch Schultz. Hailing from the Bronx, Schultz was a ruthless bootlegger named by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as “Public Enemy Number One.” Having made massive profits from Prohibition, Schultz needed a new racket to keep his cash flow going when it was repealed in 1933. He set his sights on Harlem’s highly profitable numbers racket.
Schultz forced Black and Latino numbers bankers out of business by giving them two choices: (1) give up their profitable businesses and work for him, or (2) stay in business but give Schultz part of their take. There was no lesser of two evils; and he had a reputation for beating and killing numbers bankers who refused to pay him “protection” money. Madame St. Clair wasn’t having it.
Joining Black New Yorkers’ individual and collective resistance movement against Schultz and other white gangsters trying to control Harlem’s numbers racket, she boasted of being the only “Negro banker” fighting off Dutch Schultz. A 1960 piece in the New York Post looked back at her criticism of Black bankers who were intimidated by his tactics, claiming she was not “afraid of Dutch Schultz or any other living man. He’ll never touch me! I will kill Schultz if he sets foot in Harlem. He is a rat. The policy game is my game. He’s taking it away from me and swindling the colored people. I’m the only one that’s after him.”
At a time when women were either prostitutes or gun molls involved in organized crime behind the scenes, St. Clair had the gumption to step out of what society and the mob considered proper behavior for women, employing her own type of violence to drive home her message. Confronting white merchants whose businesses fronted numbers drops for white racketeers like Schultz, she personally entered their stores, smashed plate glass cases, destroyed numbers slips and ordered them out of Harlem.
She also adopted what we would consider progressive activists’ “Buy Black” tactics, encouraging Black numbers players to only deal with Black numbers bankers — like her. To St. Clair, white infringement into Harlem’s numbers game was nothing short of more Jim Crow segregation to threaten Black bankers’ businesses.
Schultz responded in typical gangster style — he put a contract out on St. Clair’s life. But that fizzled out after he was gunned down at the Palace Chophouse in Newark, NJ, in late October of 1935. The story goes that as he lay dying in a local hospital, he received a telegram from the “Queen of Numbers” with seven little words: “As ye sow, so shall you reap.” Schultz died three days later.
A year after the demise of Dutch Shultz, St. Clair made news again when she married Sufi Abdul Hamid — a man 19 years her junior. A larger-than-life character at 6’ tall weighing 225 pounds, Harlem World described him as a “religious and labor leader, and among the first Black converts to Islam … best known for his Harlem business boycotts targeting white Jewish business owners.” The press dubbed him “Black Hitler” because of his rabid anti-semitism. Born Eugene Brown in Philadelphia, he was also known in Chicago as Bishop Conshankin, a Buddhist cleric, before reinventing himself in Harlem as “His Holiness Bishop Amiru Al-Mu-Munin Sufi A. Hamid.” Sporting a beard and mustache, he was hard to miss as he strode through Harlem in black riding boots, military-style shirts and a flamboyant black-and-crimson lined cape, topped off with a turban.
Killed Her Husband
Their nonbinding contract marriage proved short-lived, however, when St. Clair shot Hamid because of an affair with Dorothy “Fu Futtam,” a well-known Harlem fortuneteller and “conjure woman” he eventually married. During her trial, St. Clair cited Hamid’s cruelty toward her before claiming her gun went off during a struggle between the two. After all, as she insisted, if she wanted Hamid dead, he would be dead. An all-white jury convicted her of assault, sentencing her to two to 10 years in New York’s State Prison for Women in Bedford.
This time, after leaving prison in the early 1940s, Stephanie St. Clair lived a very different life. Some say she visited family and friends in the West Indies before the start of World War II, returning to New York to live quietly, turning her business interests over to Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson, a Harlem gangster and St. Clair’s one-time enforcer.
Madame St. Clair
But in 1960 a New York Post reporter named Ted Poston found St. Clair, interviewing her for a series on the history of the Harlem numbers racket. He reported her conversion from underworld numbers banker to “a prosperous businesswoman living a lavish lifestyle” in a four-story apartment she owned in Harlem. And Mayme Johnson, wife of “Bumpy” Johnson, claimed St. Clair had relocated to a Long Island mansion, “never again getting into the numbers business.” Both could be true; records show a Madame Stephanie St. Clair living at 290 Convent Avenue, just about a mile from Harlem, in 1949, while her address at the time of her death was on Central Islip on Long Island.
St. Clair died in 1969, nine years after the Post interview, at the age of 72. She was buried in lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum.
In her heyday, Stephanie St. Clair’s public life provided pages of sensational fodder for many early 20th century newspapers. Yet her death in 1969 was neither reported nor mentioned in any newspaper of the time.