Madame Queen Stephanie St. Clair: Gangstress of Harlem New York

Stephanie St. Clair was born in Martinique, an island in the East Caribbean in 1886 and came to the United States via Marseilles, France. In 1912 she arrived in Harlem. She was known for her deep involvement in the seedy gangster underworld. According to those who knew her, she was arrogant, sophisticated and astute to the ways of urban life. She reportedly told people that she was born in “European France” and was able to speak “flawless French” as opposed to the less refined French spoken by those in the Caribbean. Whenever people questioned her national origin, she would always respond in French. St. Clair also spoke Spanish.  Noted for her fierce temper, St. Clair spouted profanity in various languages when angered or outraged by some perceived slight or injustice. Her eloquent sense of fashion was well- known throughout Harlem where she was referred to as Madame St.Clair.  In in the rest of Manhattan and other city boroughs, she was referred to as “Queenie.”

St. Clair developed the first numbers bank located in Harlem. Here she and her partners, including Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, made the first significant criminal fortunes in black New York.  Initially they had little competition except for rival Casper Holstein but by the 1930s their undisputed control over Harlem’s numbers rackets was challenged.  After the Great Depression began and Prohibition ended in 1932, a number of white New York mobsters saw their profits rapidly diminish. They turned to the lucrative Harlem illegal gambling scene to supplement their loss revenue. Led by Dutch Schultz, a coalition of non-Harlem gangsters engaged in a bloody war with St. Clair and her allies for control of organized crime in that community.  Over 40 people were killed in gangland related violence including often the murder of Harlem numbers operators.

Despite the violence against their operation, St. Clair and Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson initially refused to surrender to Shultz.  Over time, however, their power weakened.  St. Clair made several futile complaints to local authorities about harassment from the New York Police Department which she felt aided Shultz.  Without political influence at City Hall, her concerns were ignored. In response, St. Clair took out several ads in Harlem newspapers accusing senior police officers of various forms of corruption. Outraged by this, she was arrested by the police on several exaggerated charges. In response she testified to New York State’s Seabury Crime Commission about the large number of kickbacks she had paid police officials to protect her operations.  Her charges led to the dismissal of several police officers.  

As St. Clair realized she could no longer oppose Shultz, she agreed to a truce which transferred the power and profits from her organization to Shultz and the Italian Mafia headed by Lucky Luciano.  In 1935, Dutch Shultz was assassinated on the orders of Luciano. Although St. Clair was not involved with his murder, she was remembered for sending an infamous telegram to his bed that stated “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” The telegram reportedly made headlines across the nation.

St. Clair’s former lieutenant, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson became the Mafia’s representative in Harlem while she slipped into obscurity.  Stephanie St. Clair died quietly in Harlem in 1969.

From BlackPast.org

Cecily Tyson as Madame Stephanie St. Clair in Hoodlum (1997)

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING FIGURES OF THE HARLEM “HEY DAY” ERA IS ONE OF THE MOST OBSCURE AND CONTROVERSIAL . STEPHANIE “MADAME” “QUEENIE” ST. CLAIR. ACTIVIST, COMMUNITY FIGURE, WRITER, GANGSTER. MUCH IS LOST ON ST. CLAIR’S BEGINNING, END, AND ARRIVAL IN AMERICA. BUT, IT’S DOCUMENTED THAT ST. CLAIR WAS A HIGHLY INTELLIGENT WOMAN, WITH DREAMS AND EQUAL BRASS TO MATCH. ST. CLAIR SPOKE THREE DIFFERENT LANGUAGES, ENGLISH, FRENCH, AND SPANISH, AND HELD THE REPUTATION FOR A FIERY PERSONALITY. LIKE MANY TRANSPLANTS TO NEW YORK, ST. CLAIR ARRIVED WITH DREAMS OF ESTABLISHING A LIFE FAR BETTER THAN HER NATIVE LAND. SHE DISCOVERED THE COLOR OF HER SKIN AND GENDER RESTRICTED HER FROM GOING AS FAR AS SHE HOPED. THOUGH, QUICK WITTED, TOUGH, AND INTELLIGENT, ST. CLAIR LEARNED THE GAME OF “NUMBERS”, A MILLION DOLLAR BACKDOOR OPERATION OF NUMBER MATCHING. HER FORTUNE DOUBLED AND ST. CLAIR BECAME ONE OF THE NOTORIOUS AND RICHEST FIGURES IN HARLEM SOCIETY OF THE 1920’S AND 30’S. ST. CLAIR LIVED ON SUGAR HILL, AN AFFLUENT SECTION OF HARLEM, WHERE SHE LIVED NEXT DOOR TO HISTORICAL LEADERS SUCH AS W.E.B. DUBOIS. STILL, SHE LED AN ALL MALE OPERATION AND DONATED PARTS OF HER WEALTH TO THE COMMUNITY. INTERESTING TO NOTE, THOUGH ST. CLAIR RAN AN ILLEGAL OPERATION FOR HER TIME, SHE STRONGLY ADVOCATED AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY AND CORRUPTION IN HER NEIGHBORHOOD. ST. CLAIR’S OPEN LETTERS TO HARLEM NEWSPAPER PUBLICATIONS EARNED HER JAIL TIME AND GENERATED HARASSMENT FROM THE LAW. EVENTUALLY, HER RESISTANCE LED TO THE DEMOTION OF OVER A DOZEN POLICE OFFICERS, WHICH WAS UNHEARD FOR A WOMEN, LET ALONE A WOMAN OF COLOR.  AND THOUGH ST. CLAIR SPENT TIME IN JAIL BECAUSE OF HER ADVOCACY, SHE SPOKE ON A CAUSE VERY PREVALENT TODAY. ST. CLAIR DIED JUST AS SHE ARRIVED IN OBSCURITY  AROUND 1969 IN HARLEM, AFTER GIVING UP HER NUMBERS OPERATION DECADES EARLIER. HER LEGACY IS PORTRAYED IN FILM, LITERATURE, AND NEIGHBORHOOD FOLKLORE. HER STRENGTH STILL ECHOES TODAY. 

I Salute this AMAZING HER-story Making Sista!

From The Cultured Goddess 

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