Upscale would like to complete Women’s History Month with some richly colorful and financially important little known facts. Black women who were primarily responsible for the creation of the U.S. State Lottery games that are currently producing over $26 billion in revenue for participating states in America.
In Black communities across the country, from the 1930s to the 1960s, local women ran number lotteries. They generated millions of dollars in revenues for their communities. They often took the place of banks who would not provide services to the Black community, like making loans to businesses, purchasing homes, sudden illnesses, and college educations. These lotteries were unregulated and illegal, yet they accomplished a great deal of good by providing a financial backbone for the communities they served. Because they operated outside of the law and underground, these community businesses fell prey to corrupt law enforcement officials and the Mafia.
Stephanie St. Claire, known on the streets of Harlem as “Queenie,” was the queen of the Harlem lottery (Numbers) in the 1930s and 1940s, and Erma L. Hill, known on the streets of Harlem as “New York Red,” was the ‘champion’ of the Harlem number lottery during the 1960s.
When prohibition ended on December 3, 1933, the mob suffered a huge decline in revenues. The Mafia discovered that the nickel and dime Number Game in the New York City Harlem Community was making lots of money. They pounced on Harlem and other Black communities across the nation like lions on red meat. These two women, to name a few, fought feverishly to keep these revenue streams flowing in the Black communities that produced them.
When Dutch Schultz, the notorious New York mobster of the prohibition era, tried to muscle in on Harlem’s number businesses in the 1930s, he was successful except for one determined woman. She refused to give in and returned every ugly favor, burnt-out store front for burnt-out store front and dead body for dead body. She once hid in a coal bin to hide from a Dutch Schultz hitman. She fought her way up to being one of the top and wealthiest Black women in Harlem.
Finding respectful men who were willing to work for her was a difficult slog. But she found Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the infamous Bumpy Johnson.
After receiving several high-profile arrests and jail time, she promoted Bumpy, her top enforcer, to take over her business.
After taking over, Bumpy made a deal with Lucky Luciano, the head Godfather of the Mafia in New York, to assassinate Dutch Schultz. In exchange, Bumpy divided up Harlem’s number businesses 50/50 with the Mafia. As Dutch Schultz lay mortally wounded in the hospital, Madame St. Claire sent him a sarcastic telegram that read, ‘You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” He died a few days later.
The Mafia was not satisfied with 50% of the numbers business. They wanted it all. New York Red arrived on the Harlem numbers scene in 1964 when Queenie was in her 80s. New York Red was a single mother with three children and was on welfare. But she had an indomitable spirit and a good education in math.
After being hired by her mentor, well-known Harlem number banker Steve Mitchell, she tripled his number business revenue and the Mafia’s take in two short years.
The Mafia killed Steve Mitchell over a money dispute, and she took over his number business. The Mafia refused to do business with her. They wanted the entire number business that she had built, and she refused to relinquish it. The Mafia sent a hitman and killed her in front of her young daughter in October of 1968 as she brought her home from daycare.
New York Red was never arrested or convicted of any crime, and she generated millions of dollars in revenue. She also left enough money for her children’s educations.
But the story doesn’t end here. Harlem was generating over a million dollars per day in lottery revenue at the time of New York Red’s death. The state of New York and other states, seeing large sums of money being generated by Black communities and the Mafia without paying taxes, started their own state-run lotteries. They did so for the same reasons as New York Red: to educate their children in the best schools. For more information on these fascinating women, visit https://bulletsinthefire.com.