|Stephanie St. Clair Hamid in custody, |
Image courtesy of Betmann/Corbis
"Put me on the spot? Me? Don't everybody know I ain't scared of nothing?" ~ Stephanie St. Clair
In the history of Stephanie St. Clair, there are a number of facts about which historians agree and disagree, including her date and place of birth, and if she spent time in France.
Biographer Shirley Stewart is generally considered to be the authority, however, and as she establishes in The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman, and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem (2014), Stephanie was born on the French east Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1897, then travelled to the US on the steamboat S.S. Guiana when she was 13 years old.
After arriving in New York in 1911, Stephanie traveled to Canada and stayed there for five years, working as a domestic servant before returning to New York five years later. Little else is known of Stephanie's former years or how she came to be voyaging on a steamboat at the age of 13 with no apparent family, but what is known is this: she came with enough education that she could read and write in French and English fluently, a significant professional advantage at that time.
Setting up residence in New York's Harlem neighborhood in the early 1920s, Stephanie St. Clair quickly made a name for herself in the numbers racket. With her profits she was able to furnish and live comfortably in an apartment on Sugar Hill, Harlem's fanciest neighborhood. Writer W. E. B. Du Bois shared her apartment building, as did numerous officials from the NAACP.
Stephanie was able to afford such an apartment due to being highly successful at what she did; that was, "running the numbers." The "numbers game" was an illegal betting game that had taken Harlem by storm. Every day, participants would place bets on what the numbers of the next day's lottery draw would be, and when they lost, all their nickels and pennies betted in the thousands day after day combined to make Stephanie "Madame Queen" St. Clair rich.
Besides her professional success and ritzy neighborhood, Stephanie was known for her style and short-temper. Always dressed to the nines and looking equal parts exquisite and dangerous, she would not hesitate to unleash a tirade of profanity or threats to get the attention of her audience, or underscore a particular point.
Understanding the power of the press, Stephanie would also take out advertising in the local black papers when she had something extra to communicate.
In the early 1930s Stephanie had numerous reasons to get angry, namely that mafia bosses from other neighborhoods were starting to encroach on her space.
The numbers in Harlem
The numbers game originated in Harlem in 1921 or 1922, and became part of the community's background. Bets were placed in the morning by 10AM then paid off in the afternoon, in time for the winners to enjoy any payout that evening, and for winners and losers alike to take care of other business so they could be back to bet again the next day.
Another part of this racket was a type of investing, whereby residents could invest their money for a period of time, then get paid back with interest - as very few banks would allow black people as customers at that time, this was seen as one of the only ways black people could invest their money.
The numbers game became central to the economic lives of many African Americans, including those employed by Stephanie St. Clair, and it was surprisingly profitable for many in the community.
|The stunning St. Clair|
Rise of the mafia
As with anything making money, it was not long before the numbers game in Harlem had caught the attention of white gangsters in other neighborhoods. One such gangster was Dutch Schultz, a German-born Jewish immigrant who made his money during Prohibition by operating a speakeasy and dealing beer to the entire Bronx area. With the end of Prohibition, he was looking to generate money from different avenues.
It was after Thanksgiving in 1931 that Scultz started making his move in Harlem, and began forcing all of the black number runners, known as the Black Kings and Queens, to turn over their business.
Stephanie was the one holdout, refusing to bow to Schultz and watch more of the profits made in Harlem flow out of their neighborhood and into the Bronx.
She took out newspaper ads to tell community members that she was not backing down, and to encourage them not to use the services of Schultz to place their bets, but to place the bets with Black Kings and Queens instead. "I'm not afraid of Dutch Schultz or any other living man," she told the newspapers. "He'll never touch me."
To get her to fold, Schulz started threatening Stephanie by kidnapping and murdering her men, buying off the police to look the other way, even getting her arrested.
She fought back by attacking and destroying the storefronts of his operations and tipping off police regarding his whereabouts, leading to the arrest of 14 of his men and the loss of over $2 million that was seized.
When the police failed to respond to her complaints about harassment at the hands of Schulz's men, Stephanie turned to the newspapers again, listing the names of police officers who had received kickbacks or were guilty of some other form of corruption. Her charges and eventual testimony would lead to the dismissal of a number of officers.
When Schultz was finally killed by another mob member, she rushed to send him a telegraph on his deathbed that read, "So You Sow - So Shall You Reap," signed "Madame Queen of Policy."
Over the course of her clash with Schultz, Stephanie had been edged out of the numbers game, however. While he was still alive, she called a truce with him and transfered the powers and profits of her organization to him and the Italian Mafia, headed by Lucky Luciano. Her former right-hand man "Bumpy" Johnson would eventually become the Mafia's representative in Harlem.
An untraditional marriage
Now out of the numbers racket, in July 1936, Stephanie married Sufi Abdul Hamid, a black rights advocate and the head of an Islamic-Buddhist cult. It was a marriage by contract, an agreement that was signed by both, but would not be legally binding. The contract bonded stipulated portions of their assets together for 99 years.
All of Stephanie’s resources were bound to Hamid, while $10,000 of his were placed in trust for her. Local newspapers described the agreement as “common in Europe," but they could not understand Stephanie's motivation to get married, as it was never something she had been interested in before.
Journalists mocked the pairing, perhaps threatened in part by what they could not understand, as well as the unusual agreement that Stephanie was an equal beneficiary in the contract of marriage - this was unheard of at the time.
Some believe it was a marriage of convenience, though Stephanie was clearly financially and emotionally self-sufficient by that time (and indeed, her whole life). Others though it was respectability she was seeking, or attention, or perhaps physical protection from the mob. Or perhaps it was love.
Whatever the reason, the union was a bumpy one, with Hamid gaining a reputation as being an anti-Semite for the way he picked on Jewish businesses in Harlem, earning him the title of "The Hitler of Harlem." Like Stephanie, Hamid was a vigorous defender of the black community, though his preferred method of communication was not through the newspapers, but by verbally inciting riots in the streets.
Both continued to be known for their passion and potential for physical violence. Mayme Johnson, the widow of "Bumpy" Johnson, told how when adequately riled, Stephanie would slip off her high heels and stand toe-to-toe with her antagonist, preparing to fight them in her stockinged feet.
Besides these exploits, however, the couple appeared to settle down for a year or so after that and their activities no longer made the papers.
Three shots in a hallway
By December of 1937 however, Stephanie announced to the newspapers that she had been separated from Hamid for four weeks. Two weeks later, she would deny it - and then nothing further was heard until January 18th, when two witnesses inside the building of 309 West 125th Street in Harlem would hear three shots fired, at 3:10PM, from a hallway where Stephanie stood with her husband.
Hamid was mostly unharmed in the encounter, though a bullet singed his mustache and nicked his teeth (yes), while another bullet grazed his arm. In the courtroom, testimonies would vary regarding who did the shooting and why.
Stephanie would testify that Hamid had been abusing her, on one occasion threatening to throw her through a window and at another time, hitting her so hard it broke her earrings. A friend of couple verified in court that he had witnessed the threats and abuse. Continuing the paint the picture of her partner, Stephanie described how Hamid was broke and a gambler, and that money had been the motivation for his proposal.
The final straw in all of this however, seemed to be when Stephanie learned that Hamid had been seeing another women about 10 years younger than her, and that the two had been siphoning money from her accounts.
During the confrontation between the two that day in January, it was unclear who had been shooting at who. Stephanie stated that Hamid held the gun and shot at her, then bit her as she tried to grab it, and the gun went off twice more.
A resident that had been in the building at the time verified that she had seen Hamid holding the gun, and heard him say "I'll shoot you." A nurse reported that she treated Stephanie for bite wounds. Hamid, however, stated that Stephanie had shot at him on sight, missing narrowly all three times.
The all-white jury convened for three hours and when it emerged, found Stephanie St. Clair guilty of possession of a deadly weapon and first degree assault.
The judge sentenced her to 2-10 years at the State Prison for Women in Bedford Hills, New York, proclaiming to the courtroom, “This woman has been living by her wits all of her life. She has a bad temper and must learn that she can’t go around shooting at other people.”
After the trial
Local newspaper The Amsterdam News reported on the trial the next day, along with a piece it probably viewed as quite thoughtful, entitled "Can a Woman be Trusted with Important Secrets?"
Reviewing the case, journalist Julius J. Adams observed ruefully, “Women, as a rule, will do the thing that eases the situation of the moment, which all too often, highly complicated future events. When these new complications become evident, they are sorry.”
Stephanie served in jail for three years, during which time Harlem began its slow decline, with outside forces continuing to fight over it and pull money from the community, instead of reinvesting in it. Hamid would die in a plane crash months after her arrest.
Once released from jail, Stephanie would live a relatively quiet life and became more involved in working for the civil and economic rights of African-Americans, though not much detail is known about this. She died in 1969 at the age of 73.
In her day however she was a powerful example of what a black women could become, even one who arrived in New York at the age of thirteen with only her intelligence, her guts, and a spark of natural fury to make her way with.
"I am sane and smart and fearless." ~ Stephanie St. Clair
"I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than a governor in Georgia." ~ 1920s Harlem saying
- Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars, Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Robertson, & Stephen Garton, Pop Matters, PopMatters.com, August 2nd, 2010.
- Stephanie St. Clair, Rejected Princesses, Rejected Princesses.com, 2016.
- St. Clair, Stephanie (1886-1969), Elwood Watson, The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, BlackPast.org. 2016.
- Stephanie St. Clair, The Mob Museum, TheMobMuseum.org, 2016.
- In the Court of the High Queen of Harlem, Samithra Nadoo, The Journalist as Historian, May 14th, 2014.