Stephanie St Clair: Queenie of Harlem

At the beginning of the 20th century, to be a woman was hard, to be a black migrant woman even harder. So the story of Stephanie St Clair is interesting. Martinique born St Clair, came to New York and during the turn 20th century, she ran with the 40 Thieves gangs. She ran a numbers game (an illegal lottery), with such success that she branched off on her own. St Clair became not only a leader but was also well respected in her Harlem community (Queenie was a nickname).

Her power and wealth did not prevent her from being harassed by the police. When she complained to the authorities and got nowhere. She took action and ran advertisement about police corruption. Seeking revenge, she was arrested on bogus charges. After testifying at the Seabury Commission, she told everyone about the kick backs she paid the police. Twelve police officers were promptly sacked.

With the end of Prohibition, the Mafia had lost major profits and decided to squeeze on the Harlem gambling scene. St Clair was pressured into paying ‘family tax’ by Mob boss Dutch Shultz. After initially refusing to cave in,  given the might of the mob she had to accept. Eventually, St Clair withdrew more and more from her criminal activities.

St Clair is largely forgotten now, she is still a fascinating woman. Given the lack of options available to black women at the time to prosper, it is not so surprising that she turned to crime. Not only did she succeed in a male dominated world. She gained a level of power and respect that she would certainly have never have achieved.


Stephanie SC


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