Stephanie St. Clair was a remarkable woman who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential figures in Harlem’s underground economy in the early 20th century. She was a successful racketeer, a fierce civil rights advocate, and a glamorous fashion icon. She defied the stereotypes and expectations of her time and challenged the domination of the Mafia in her territory.
St. Clair was born of African descent in the West Indies, most likely in Guadeloupe, around 1897. She immigrated to the United States from Montreal in 1912, after losing her mother and surviving an abusive relationship. She settled in Harlem, where she learned English and started her own business selling drugs. She soon amassed enough money to invest in a clandestine lottery game, known as the numbers game, which was popular among the black community who had limited access to legal banking and investment opportunities.
The numbers game involved betting on a three-digit number that was derived from the last digits of the daily bank transactions or stock exchange figures published in newspapers. The game offered high returns for low stakes and attracted thousands of customers who dreamed of winning big. St. Clair ran one of the leading numbers games in Harlem, employing hundreds of runners, collectors, and bankers. She earned millions of dollars and became known as the “Queen of Numbers” or “Madame St. Clair”.
St. Clair was not only a savvy businesswoman but also a generous philanthropist and a vocal activist. She donated money to various causes, such as orphanages, churches, schools, and hospitals. She also supported black-owned businesses and newspapers, such as The Amsterdam News and The New York Age. She used her influence and wealth to fight against police corruption and brutality, racial discrimination and injustice, and voter suppression. She took out newspaper ads to expose the abuses of the police and to urge the black community to stand up for their rights. She also testified before a grand jury about the corruption of Tammany Hall politicians who extorted money from her and other numbers bankers.
St. Clair faced many challenges and enemies in her career, but none more formidable than the Mafia. In the 1930s, after the end of Prohibition, the Italian mobsters saw an opportunity to take over the lucrative numbers game in Harlem. They tried to intimidate, bribe, or kill St. Clair and her associates, but she resisted their attempts with courage and cunning. She formed an alliance with another prominent black numbers banker, Casper Holstein, and hired armed guards to protect her operation. She also befriended Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a notorious gangster who became her chief enforcer and later her lover.
St. Clair’s resistance to the Mafia earned her the respect and admiration of many Harlem residents but also brought her into conflict with the law. She was arrested several times on various charges, such as gambling, tax evasion, and conspiracy. She spent some time in prison, where she continued to run her business through intermediaries. She also wrote letters to newspapers and officials to protest her treatment and expose the hypocrisy and racism of the justice system.
St. Clair eventually retired from the numbers game in the late 1940s, after reaching an agreement with Lucky Luciano, the head of the Mafia. She sold her operation to Johnson and moved to a luxury apartment on Edgecombe Avenue, where she lived among other prominent black figures, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall. She died in 1969 at the age of 72.
Stephanie St. Clair was a remarkable woman who left a lasting legacy in Harlem’s history and culture. She was a pioneer of black entrepreneurship, a champion of black empowerment, and a legend of black resistance.