Mogul Talk: Meet Stephanie St. Clair
History often presents black women as one-dimensional figures. We’re told that a woman of colour was this or that, and we take the information presented to us at face value. And in doing so, we are given a false dichotomy of who the black woman is. She's either loud and angry or a God-fearing, docile being. This dulls the complexity of the individual. Despite it being human nature to put people in boxes as an attempt to understand the unknown, a person can be something other than mostly bad or mostly good. For this reason, history isn’t kind to Anti-Heroes.
To some, Stephanie St. Clair was a mob boss who ran the numbers games and operated criminal enterprises. To others, she was an unconventional activist battling racial inequalities and urban corruption. In reality, she was both.
Stephanie St. Clair wasn’t just a woman in a man’s world, she was a black woman in a white man's world. St. Clair who was also referred to as “Queenie” (outside of Harlem) or “Madame St. Clair” took on City Hall, The Police, and The Mafia. While there are very few photos and no recordings of Stephanie St. Clair, her name remains notorious for being one of the most iconic female crime bosses in America. Cloaked in mystery, St. Clair’s country of origin has been the subject of speculation but most historians suggest Martinique or Guadeloupe. St. Clair always kept her cards close to her chest—even her age was a secret.
What we do know is that she came to New York in the 1910s from Marseille, France. She was volatile and outspoken but lady-like and sophisticated at the same time. She was known to speak English, French, and Spanish, a skill that was quite unheard of at the time considering many black and brown folks were denied access to learning new languages.
During the Harlem Renaissance, St. Clair managed to put together enough cash to get involved in the numbers game. The numbers game was essentially an early lottery style scheme where players would pick a 3-digit number between 1 and 1000. At the time, penny bets could win you $6. That works out to only about $150 dollars in 2018, but in 1912 this meant that you could buy groceries for the family for a week. This was an opportunity for black folks to invest their money, albeit illegally, as they were not given the same opportunities to do so through the banks—to take what little they had and better the lives of themselves and their families. By 1928, St. Clair had become a household name and was living lavishly in the Sugar Hill District. St. Clair was a 1 of 1. A black woman established among men during a time where women hardly had rights and black women had even fewer liberties. She employed hundreds of people in the community and invested in legitimate businesses—giving her folk hero status. St. Clair was an example of how African Americans could creatively use informal economies as a platform to challenge social and economic oppression.
In 1928, one of St. Clair’s number game rivals, Casper Holstein, was kidnapped. His captors demanded a $50,000 ransom from his people. This was eventually paid, and word began to spread around New York. People began to wonder how a black man was able to come up with $50, 000. To put that into perspective, President Coolidge was only making $30,000 a year. Eventually, Mob bosses were able to figure out that this was made possible through the earnings of the numbers game, and this attracted the attention of Dutch Schultz. Schultz (also known as “The Dutchman”), was a Jewish mobster from the Bronx who sold prohibition booze to Harlem clubs. When he realized how much money there was to be made, Schultz moved in on the Harlem numbers game. St. Clair’s numbers game.
The Dutchman couldn’t just waltz into the Harlem numbers game because a lot of the "policy bankers" were now black-owned. To rectify his problem, he put pressure on the police to crackdown on St. Clair’s business. This made him a threat to the entire operation. Despite the fact that she had the police on her payroll, they complied with Dutch’s orders, leading to an increasingly violent turf war over the course of 3 years. He managed to get her thrown in jail and have many of her belongings seized. Schultz put a hit out on St Clair, but he never managed to kill her. She ended up outliving him as Lucky Luciano, an Italian mobster, eventually had Dutch killed for insubordination.
While the power struggle was taking place, Stephanie St. Clair became a vocal member of the community. She wrote an open letter to the Mayor of New York calling out police brutality, and the misogynoir she was being subjected to. Her letters became a regular feature in the black-owned Amsterdam News. St. Clair began informing black people of their rights and highlighted ways to deal with the social injustices they were facing.
Despite her fiery temperament and cold demeanor, St. Clair was very community-oriented. She created ways for Harlem folks to invest and protect their money at a time where a lot of banks wouldn’t accept black money. She ran many illicit operations that created hundreds of jobs for locals including bankers, controllers, runners, bookmakers, and bodyguards. This brought traffic to restaurants, barbershops, and social clubs in her local neighborhood where bookies would take slips. Her employees were always immaculately dressed. She also created a legal fund for French-speaking immigrants to support their integration into society, an issue that was extremely close to her heart.
Before slipping away into obscurity, Madame St. Clair slowly handed over her operations to her former enforcer, “Bumpy” Johnson and mob boss, Lucky Luciano. After her operations were all taken care of, she entered into a short-lived marriage with a militant activist by the name of Sufi Abdul Hamid as she began to use her newfound notoriety to advocate for social and political reform. In January of 1938, Hamid was shot and St. Clair was charged for the crime. She was sentenced 2 to 10 years. After she was released she decided to remain involved in social and political activism—steering clear of illegal activity. After her protector, Bumpy, died of a heart attack she died 18 months later.
Stephanie St. Clair was a maverick. She was a gangster and a philanthropist. She was independent, but she played her part in the New York Underworld. She was a black woman who came from nothing and built an empire for herself and for those who helped facilitate it. Folks will likely ignore the grey and portray her as simply black and white, but there’s no doubt that Madame St Clair was a trailblazer in her own right.