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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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This inquiry into the life of Stephanie St. Clair began by questioning why she did not live the life expected of her and what some of the factors were that influenced St. Clair’s decision to become an entrepreneur and activist in Harlem. Also, why did St. Clair choose to describe herself as a lady when the definition would not have applied to a black woman or any woman involved in an illegal policy banking operation? The answers to these questions emerge at the intersection of what St. Clair believed herself to be and the influence of external factors in her life.

St. Clair came to the United States at the age of thirteen but she already had a sense of her own power—an agency passed down from her ancestors. A free people before slavery, West Africans’ definition of gender sustained a resolve to resist enslavement from the moment of their capture. Once on the plantation in the New World, the fight against slavery intensified as evidenced by frequent revolts and continuous tacit rebellions. The War of 1802 and the legal battles regarding the Code Noir demonstrated the bondswomen’s fierce commitment to freedom. Ironically, following emancipation the black elite women of Guadeloupe held less power in their families and communities than they did during slavery. Black men were free, could vote and were accepted as the head of the household. Black women did not have the same rights. However, the women of Guadeloupe were not so far removed...

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