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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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One: The Old World


Where It All Began

What do we know of Stephanie St. Clair before her appearance in Harlem? Very little. The dearth of facts was depressing. St. Clair was born over a hundred years ago when many records were maintained as a matter of formal courtesy rather than legal mandate. In the decades after emancipation, blacks in the New World were often undocumented and with the elimination of plantations, listings detailing the existence of human chattel were no longer available. Further complicating matters, it became obvious early on that St. Clair deliberately misled people and obfuscated information appearing on her official records. Given this set of circumstances, how does one fairly follow and document the life of such an individual? As things developed, the limited information available was a good start. The date and place of St. Clair’s birth provided a context for social and political history that allowed for some suppositions about her early life.

This is what is known: Stephanie St. Clair was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on December 24, 1897, fifty years after the emancipation of the French colonies’ slaves. As it turned out, St. Clair’s history was closely aligned with Guadeloupe’s history. Her ancestors were well-documented in archival records—they were an unruly and uncooperative bunch. From the time of their capture on the shores of Africa until emancipation, they actively rebelled against their enslavement. In all manner legal and illegal they sought to ← 9 | 10 → undermine the plantocracy at...

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