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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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Four: Activism, Sufi and Survival



St. Clair’s advertisements informed the Harlem community of the importance of becoming part of the political process. In St. Clair’s battle with Schultz, she realized what Schultz had surmised early on: that although Harlem policy bankers had wealth, affluence and the respect of their community, they did not have the political influence to safeguard their operations or protect their community. On January 17, 1929 St. Clair endorsed the Democratic ticket. Her advocacy contributed to the election of Mayor Jimmy Walker and Judge Thomas Crain.1 Unfortunately, both officials were investigated by the Seabury Commission and ultimately found culpable of illegal activities. Despite St. Clair’s and the Democratic Party’s misplaced allegiance, St. Clair was pushing forward an agenda of black citizens voting for Democratic candidates that supported the goal of political empowerment for the residents of Harlem.

However, there were two problems activists like St. Clair encountered in efforts to make the Harlem community a political force. The first problem involved black immigrants who could not vote because they lacked United States citizenship. To this group, St. Clair directed one of her advertisements. Once again, she addressed the advertisement to “Members of My Race,” and stated that it was a surprise to her that the black population in New York City was approximately 400,000 and that only one in ten were voters. Directing her message to “British subjects” from the British West Indies, she urged them to become full citizens despite racism and discrimination. ← 99 | 100...

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