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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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Two: The New World



As St. Clair was developing as a black woman and a lady, her new home was undergoing changes as well. She had replaced a rigid yet dependable existence in Guadeloupe for a life in a place unsure of its status in the world. Social and political changes in America were underway even before young St. Clair’s arrival. However, major shifts were further triggered by the work of the black club women who assisted her on Ellis Island. Organizations like the Welcome Stranger Committee, although well-intentioned, brought to the attention of the government troubling aspects of black Caribbean immigration—in particular emigrants traveling to America with no job prospects. In 1915, the United States Senate proposed an amendment to its Chinese Exclusion Act that would prohibit people of African descent from entering the United States.1 Originally enacted in 1882, it prohibited the entry of Chinese citizens to the United States. The ban was also applied to individuals from other Asian countries and immigrants the American government deemed lunatics, idiots and those who might need the help of government-supported social services.2 Subsequently alarmed at the increase in immigration from southern, central and Eastern Europe after World War I, a literary test was added in 1917 to exclude potential émigrés who did not speak English.3

In arguing for the exclusion of people of African descent, Senator James Reed of Missouri stated, “I am not in favor of permitting to ← 43 | 44 → come into this country to become...

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