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The World of Stephanie St. Clair

An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem


Shirley Stewart

Born in Guadeloupe in 1897, Stephanie St. Clair entered the United States thirteen years later. By 1923 at the age of twenty-six she would create and manage a highly lucrative policy bank in Harlem – earning a quarter of a million dollars a year. To this day, she remains the only black female gangster to run an operation of that size. Infamous gangster Dutch Schultz invited himself to share in the Harlem profits. Unlike other Harlem bankers, St. Clair resisted. Despite Schultz’s threats, many of her male employees remained with her. Some said she paid them high wages and challenged them by asking, «What kind of men would desert a lady in a fight?»
Upon arrival in the United States St. Clair did not conduct her life in the manner expected of a black female Caribbean immigrant in the early twentieth century. What factors influenced St. Clair’s decision to become an entrepreneur and activist within her community? Why did St. Clair describe herself as a «lady» when ladies did not run illegal businesses and they were not black? These questions are explored along with her lineage – a lineage that contains the same fighting spirit that she carried throughout her life. This is not the story of a victim.
Courses concerned with the study of social and economic conditions of black urban residents during the early twentieth century and female entrepreneurs of the same era will find St. Clair’s story compelling and informative.


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A ABB (see African Blood Brotherhood) activism, 99–104 adaptability as an entrepreneurial characteristic, 4–5, 6–7, 133–134 advertising: Aunt Jemima, 37–38; beauty products, 39–40; black children, 37–38; black women, 37– 38, 132; McDougald, Elise Johnson, 38; Quebec Steamship Company, 24; St. Clair, 92–97; Walker, C.J., 38 Affaire Virginie, 18–19; 141n34 African Blood Brotherhood, 67, 69, 71 African cultural traditions, 12, 13 African entrepreneurship, 3–4, 13 American Federation of Labor, 105, 120 American Legion, The, 74 Anti-Saloon League, 63–64 Army War College study, 119 ASL (see Anti-Saloon League) Aunt Jemima, 37–38, 40 B banking institutions, illegal cash deposits, 85–86 Barron’s Exclusive Club, 77 Belgamie, Florence, 33 benevolent association/organizations: credit, 80; Ellis Island, 27; exclusion of black women, 30; Harlem, 81, 132; Penny Savings Bank, 5; post- emancipation Guadeloupe, 20–21, 40; War of 1802, 16 Bight of Benin, 11–12 birth: announcements in Guadeloupe, 20; certificate, St. Clair’s, 125–126; Hamid, Sufi, 116; passenger list, 25– 26; plantation profit, 29 Bishop, Hutchins Chew, 76 Bishop, Shelton Hale, 76 black children as business assets, 29, 38 Black Cross Nurses, 74 black men on the plantation, 12, 13 black militancy (see radical movements) Black Star Steamship Line, 68–69, 70, 150n75 Black Victoria, 31–36, 41 black women as a commodity, 28–30 Bolsheviks, 52–53, 148n31 Bonaparte, Napoleon, 15–16 Book of Common Prayer, 30 boundaries, Harlem, 67 Bragg, Harry G., 89 Braithwaite, Stanley, 89 Broad Channel, New York, 59...

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