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Madame Stephanie St. Clair: When Queenie Ruled Harlem

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Stephanie St. Clair was the most colorful of all the figures to walk the streets of Renaissance Harlem. Her character is as mysterious as the murky accounts of her birth. She liked diamonds and furs. She was a regular patron of the opera. She said she was from Marseilles, in France. But she may have been from around here, Guadeloupe or Martinique. In any case, she spoke an impeccable French. And she was also a mobster.

The number racket was for a time the largest employer in Harlem

Queenie, as she was known throughout Harlem, ran a numbers racket—an illegal lottery in which people received a 6000% return for guessing the day’s lucky numbers. Compared to the other endeavors of organized crime, the numbers racket, or “policy banking,” was relatively benign. It was victimless, and so was generally tolerated by the police, if the right people were bribed. In time, playing the numbers became a staple of Harlem life. “Almost every economic and social group in the community was involved in the numbers game,” writes Shirley Stewart, whose book, The World of Stephanie St. Clair, remains St. Clair’s authoritative biography.

Policy banking was “for a time, the largest employer in Harlem, and the largest black-controlled business anywhere.” Bill Duke’s movie Hoodlum emphasizes this benevolent aspect of Queenie’s career. It depicts her as the gracious provider for Harlem’s poor and her lieutenant, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, as a Depression-era Robin Hood. In one memorable exchange, Bumpy Johnson (played by Laurence Fishburne) defends the numbers racket to a character played by Vanessa Williams: “Excuse me, I believe the numbers provide for over 2,000 folks in Harlem alone. A penny gets you six dollars. That’s what? A month worth of groceries?”

I’m not afraid of Dutch Shultz, or any other man living

St. Clair and Johnson were gangsters, but selling policy benefited Harlem in a substantial way. Queenie, who lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, didn’t need altruism to motivate her: The profits from the numbers game were enormous. An inkling of the riches to be made in Harlem came to light when Casper Holstein, a competitor of Madame St. Clair, was kidnapped and held for a $50,000 ransom. Somehow, Holstein paid, and New York’s underworld pricked its ears. There was money in Harlem, and Dutch Shultz, the most notorious mobster of the 1920s, also wanted in.

Shultz began reaching out to policy bankers in the neighborhood. When Queenie found out, she was furious. “I’m not afraid of Dutch Shultz, or any other man living,” she declared in a paid advertisement in Amsterdam News. But Shultz was not about to go away. These headlines from the early 1930s New York Times and New York Age deftly capture the bloody feud that ensued.

But there are forms of collusion subtler than cops participating in gunfights. Queenie protested bitterly that the police were targeting her runners, even though she had “paid her dues” to have the cops look the other way. Ever the entrepreneur, St. Clair began to get politically active. She funded the campaigns of Democratic politicians. St. Clair took on to addressing herself directly to the Harlem community, urging blacks to denounce police violations of their civil rights.

In a series of 13 full-page ads published in the Amsterdam News to “The members of my race,” Madame Stephanie urged Harlemites to vote, to apply for American citizenship (this directed at recent immigrants), and to stand up for their Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures.

“Please have no fear for me,” she wrote in one ad. “I am going to fight until the members of my race get their just and legal rights.” Her motivation may have been to protect her policy slips, but on some level, it didn’t matter because her message was clear: Harlem’s blacks ought to stand up for their rights.

The vicious turf war finally ended in 1935, when Schultz was shot on the orders of the Italian mafia. After her own eight-month arrest in 1930, the Queen left policy banking to her trusted lieutenant Johnson. For the rest of her life, St. Clair was a frequent presence in local tabloids, where her flair for publicity could rival any contemporary social media celebrity. She may not have achieved the lasting infamy of Dutch Schultz or Al Capone but, in Harlem, she was Queenie until her death, in 1969.

FREE EBOOK DOWNLOAD: Reine de Harlem, by Raphael Confiant

 

FREE STREAM: Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941)

All-black musical drama mystery directed by Arthur Dreifuss, written by Frank Wilson, Vincent Valentini, and Bryna Ivens and starring Mamie Smith, Alec Lovejoy, and Norman Astwood.

Yitzchak Fried

Yitzchak (Isaac) Fried graduated from Yeshiva University with a B.A. in political science and a concentration in political philosophy. He enjoys writing, dogs, good books, good wine and good conversation. He currently hails from Washington Heights, and has been in love with the city for four years.
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