The ‘Numbers Queen’ Of Harlem, Stephanie St. Clair

Stephanie St. Clair was a Harlem entrepreneur who excelled at minting cash even during the Great Depression.

The early 20th century, however, saw few opportunities for African Americans to enter traditional, white-dominated financial businesses. She made her fortune instead by operating in the numbers racket. Despite being faced with corruption and violence from cops and mobsters, she was one of the racket’s most successful operators, channeling her money into legitimate ventures and uplifting others of her race.

The Great Migration from the South to northern and midwestern cities from the 1920s to the 1930s made Harlem the center of Black America, with thriving arts, music, and literature scenes. During this Harlem Renaissance, an illegal lottery referred to as the “policy” or “numbers” flourished as well. Players picked three numbers from 000 to 999 and hoped to match numbers drawn from the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve’s end-of-day credit balance, etc., each day.

Although many people worked in the policy racket to collect slips and pay winners, the banker financed the whole operation and was its most important player. Harlem’s most powerful banker during the early 1930s was Stephanie St. Clair.

What Is Different Now From The Time of The “Numbers Queen”

Before we get more into the life of the “Numbers Queen” let us take a look at how different the world of gambling is now. There has been no doubt that gambling has played an important role in defining the identity and development of New York and, particularly, Harlem over the past 150 years.

Lotteries have historically been the most popular form of gambling across the world, as they are the oldest and most recognized. There was some controversy surrounding Harlem lotteries before the 1920s, with many players alleging they were rigged. It is because of the belief that lotteries are rigged that the policy racket was born.

The people of Harlem then would probably not believe it even if they saw the gambling of today. With technology rapidly evolving we now have the opportunity to visit the best new online casino platforms with just a click. Every gambling form, casino game, and sports betting is just a click away now. We have much to thank technology for allowing us to have all the entertainment that people of the past couldn’t dream of available at the palm of our hand. But let us take a trip to the past and learn about the life of Stephanie St. Clair.

The Mysterious Past of a Colorful Figure

There is little information about the early years of St. Clair. Her origins are reportedly in the French West Indies, but it’s unclear when and how she came to New York, and how she came to raise the initial funds for her “bank.” 

The self-proclaimed “Queen of Numbers” earned $200,000 a year in her heyday with several bodyguards, forty to fifty runners, and 10 comptrollers. In addition to living in Harlem’s most prestigious buildings, where luminaries like Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Du Bois lived, she owned other real estate investment properties and wore exotic, fashion-forward dresses, vibrant turbans, and flowing furs.  

Numbers Queen’s Legacy

The New York Times reports that by 1980, the illegal, street-run numbers business generated anywhere between $800 million and $1.5 billion per year in Harlem’s economy. However, the state’s first daily lottery launched that year, accelerating the decline of the racket and driving down local jobs related to numbers.

During a time when numbers businesses were the most lucrative business opportunity available to Black Americans, St. Clair grew her operation to become one of the best in Harlem, and maybe even the nation. Using numbers, St. Clair advocated for the rights and businesses of Black business owners. 

During her career as a numbers queen, St. Clair gained a foothold in the legal sphere, including the purchase of several apartment buildings. In the true businesswoman’s tradition, many of these activities supported her numbers operation. She gained legitimacy and community support by advocating for Black business and voting rights.


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"The Clark Legacy Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark and their work," this post is made in partnership with Harlem Cultural Archives, get more at Harlem History.

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