This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Ugly – Stephanie Saint-Clair
I hesitate to use “The Ugly” for Stephanie Saint-Clair because she’s a pretty cool person to write about. She did a lot for the African American community in Harlem. However, she was vicious.
She could speak three languages, was a fashion plate, had a fierce temper, and was a successful businesswoman in the men’s game of organized crime. Known as Madame Saint-Clair or Queenie, Stephanie Saint-Clair was not someone to mess with.
Stephanie Saint-Clair was born on Dec. 24, 1886 on Martinique. Félicienne, her mother, worked to make sure Saint-Clair went to school. Unfortunately, Félicienne died when Saint-Clair was 15. Quitting school, she went to work as a maid for a wealthy family where she was raped by the son. Saving her money her left her home for France, but even though she could read and write, she could not find work. She left France for the United States and learned English on the trip over.
Settling in Harlem, she fell in love with a man who tried to prostitute her. She assaulted him and left New York via bus. But the next night her bus was stopped by members of the Ku Klux Klan who then hanged and burned several of the passengers. They raped Saint-Clair repeatedly. Once free, she went back to New York and started selling controlled drugs with her new beau, Ed.
After a few months and $30,000, she told Ed she was leaving him. Angry, Ed attacked her and she pushed him away so forcefully that he hit his head and died.
Saint-Clair became involved in running one of the most successful numbers games in New York. She also was involved in policy banking where African Americans could invest their money. At the time most banks would not accept African Americans customers. With her policy bank, African Americans had a way to invest, although it was risky. She also employed many African Americans as numbers runners and in other jobs in her business, In the 1920s, she was making $20,000 a year (about $250,000 a year today).
Using her wealth and influence, she would educate African Americans about their legal rights, advocate for voting rights, and called out police brutality. She ran ads in Harlem papers calling out police corruption. She was arrested for a made up charge and had to spend months in a workhouse. Angry at the police department, she testified the the Seabury Commission about the officers she bribed leading to the firing of several officers.
Prohibition was the big racket at the time for Jewish and Italian American mobs. Once Prohibition ended they needed a new way to make money, so they looked to Harlem. Dutch Schultz, a Jewish mobster, was the first to come in with a protection racket in Harlem. When Schultz came her way. Saint-Clair complained to police who looked the other way. Saint-Clair with her chief enforcer, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson sought revenge on Schultz. They attacked storefronts of the businesses where Schultz had betting operations and then would tell the police about Schultz’s racket. Police would then raid his house and seized about $12 million, (about $216 million in 2016 currency).
Saint-Clair knew she had pushed her luck with Schultz and the police, so she gave her business to Johnson. Working with Lucky Luciano, Luciano took over Schultz’s racket with Bumpy getting a share of the profits. The Italians worked with bumpy on business in Harlem. Soon after, Luciano had Schultz killed, but as he was dying in the hospital, Saint-Clair sent Schultz a telegram with the message “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
As Johnson continued the business, Saint-Clair became less involved in the numbers game. She married Sufi Abdul Hamid, known as the “Black Hitler” in the late 1930s. The marriage didn’t last long. Hamid was cheating on Saint-Clair and used her money to open a business with his mistress. Hamid and Saint-Clair divorced after she shot him. For the shooting, she spent 10 years in prison.
After prison, she and Johnson lived together. Saint-Clair continued working on educating the Harlem community on their civil rights. She died wealthy at the age of 82 in 1969.
Stephanie St. Clair. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_St._Clair
Watson, Elwood. (n.d.). St. Clair, Stephanie (1886–1969). BlackPast.org. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from http://www.blackpast.org/aah/st-clair-stephanie-1886-1969