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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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Three: The Business and the Politics of Policy in Harlem


The Business

Twenty-four-year-old St. Clair began her policy operation in 1923.1 With $10,000 cash, it was clear that she had no plans to return to domestic service. It is difficult to determine where St. Clair obtained that amount of cash, but she probably acquired it from a variety of sources. Legally, she may have had some savings from her work as a domestic. Illegally, St. Clair probably worked for a policy banker as a clerk or bookkeeper. Individuals often started by playing the numbers then worked for a policy banker for a period of time. With their savings, they eventually became policy bankers themselves if they chose to do so. St. Clair would not have been the first person to start a business of this type in this manner.2 It makes sense that she was involved in the numbers game since she was an immediate success in her own venture. Observing the internal operations and the employees in someone else’s bank, she learned the necessary skill set. Any other business experience, either legal or illegal, would not have prepared her to create and successfully run a policy bank.

As noted earlier, black women did not have many choices in terms of earning a living. The cash St. Clair had in hand does suggest that she planned on an entrepreneurial venture. However, with the “double disadvantage” of racism and sexism, her choices were further restricted in terms of most entrepreneurial activities.3 Because the average black person...

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