Editor’s Note: This week, The Root commemorates Black History Month with a series on little-known or forgotten rebels, celebrating black America’s legacy of defiance.
There’s always been a sweet dichotomy in Harlem—a balance, if you will. Harlem has long had the underbelly and the Talented Tenth, afro picks and press-and-curls. Riotous Saturday night sweating giving way to Sunday morning’s mothers hollering the Lord’s praises. As much as it’s known for Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes, Harlem was also the home of Alpo, AZ, and Rich Porter; Bumpy Johnson and Frank Lucas.
But among these American gangsters—street legends when “hood famous” in this most famous ‘hood made you viral before there was such a thing—there was a matriarch, one who laid the foundation and taught her sons to be brilliant in life’s chess game, paving a way for an underground economy that moved many into the even more difficult-to-crack middle class. Yes, there were doctors, dentists, pastors, and lawyers on Strivers’ Row and in Sugar Hill, but more than a few numbers runners, ne’er-do-wells, bluesman and gangstas—their neighbors—were able to move their families out of poverty, too. You know, the American Dream.
Stephanie St. Clair, she of many names—Queenie, Madam Queen, Madam St. Clair, and Queen of the Policy Rackets—used her nerves of steel, mathematical acumen, self-made story, and street smarts, to become a boss, a fashion icon, a civil rights advocate, and a Harlem legend. And like Nanny of the Maroons, who was a fierce warrior who never bowed to her enemies, neither did Sister St. Clair, who gave as good as she got—if not better.
According to sources, St. Clair was born in the late 1890s in a French-speaking Caribbean island (either Martinique or present-day Guadeloupe) to a single mother, who died when she was relatively young. To survive, Madam St. Clair had to go work in the home of a white family, where she was repeatedly raped by the son of that clan. After getting the hell out of that situation, she arrived via ship to New York City in the summer of 1911, at age 13 or 23 (she is believed to have learned English on the months-long trek).
She landed in Harlem at the turn of the century, and had a few love affairs with men who were firmly ensconced in the underworld (most didn’t end well—for them!) Miss Madam St. Clair was bout it.
There are stories: She stabbed her first beau in the eye with a fork when he tried to pimp her out (after subsequently fleeing on a bus which was stopped by the Ku Klux Klan, she was raped. Again.). Another boyfriend died after trying to choke her—he hit his head on a table after attacking her and met his maker. In a tiff with her third old man, a fiery, black militant and cult leader, she was arrested and imprisoned for attempted murder, to which she allegedly responded in her defense, “If I had wanted him dead, he would be dead.”
Madam’s trajectory as a major player began with selling drugs while in Harlem, eventually amassing a small fortune (between $10,000 and $20,000), which she then invested as an entree into the policy rackets, which was the lottery of its day. The rackets also functioned as a banking system and an underground economy that thrived and bubbled even during the Great Depression.
St. Clair was also a race woman. She was known to put out ads in the local newspapers educating the Harlem community about their legal rights, especially as it related to police brutality (which in the ‘30s and ‘40s must have been really out of control)—going so far as to run ads in the paper accusing cops of corruption. So, they trumped up some charges on her and she went to a workhouse for about 10 months. After she was released, she testified to the Seabury Commission about the officers she paid off; her testimony resulted in the firing of more than a dozen officers.
But wait—there’s more! And it’s perhaps Madam’s’s most infamous tale. At the end of Prohibition, gangsters like Dutch Schultz and the Italian mob needed new streams of revenue and moved in on Harlem, trying to extort those making money in numbers and policy with “protection.” Madam said nah, and she and her lieutenant, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, went to war with Schultz; her get-back was “swift and brutal,” according to Rejected Princesses:
When the economy tanked and white mobsters’ profits began to plunge, they began edging in on Harlem. None were more ruthless in this land grab than gun-toting thug Dutch Schultz. He began making phone calls threatening her, kidnapping and murdering her men, buying off select police, and even at one point got her arrested.
St. Clair’s revenge was swift and brutal. When, at one point, Schultz sent an underling to intimidate her, she pushed the underling into a closet, locked him in, and called in four massive bodyguards to “take care of him.” She attacked and destroyed the storefronts of any business that ran Schultz’s betting operations. She tipped the police off to Schultz’s operations—which led to them raiding his clearinghouse, arresting 14 employees, and seizing around $2 million. She then bragged about it in the press.
Perhaps having the wisdom of knowing when to fold ‘em, St. Clair bowed out of the game (alive) soon after this war with Schultz and turned her business over to Bumpy Johnson, who eventually negotiated with the Commission (a conglomerate of Mafia heads formed by Lucky Luciano) to keep the mob’s hands off of Harlem unless they went through him.
After Luciano put out a hit on Schultz in 1935, Madam sent a telegram to his dying bedside with a simple Bible verse: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Cold-blooded.
After she got out of prison, Madam St. Clair continued to advocate for black Americans and lived a quiet life under the protection of Johnson. She reportedly died in New York in 1969.
There’s a poignant scene in the 1984 film, The Cotton Club, where Laurence Fishburne, as Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (Bumpy Rhodes in the film), asks Gregory Hines as Delbert “Sandman” Williams, “Where do you dance?”
Stephanie St. Clair danced all over Harlemworld’s underworld, on the grave of Dutch Schultz, and into the history books as one of the baddest bosses on record, a woman who made a way for herself out of no way, used her fierce acumen to wage war against powerful men—and looked fierce while doing it. She was a survivor, an inspiration, a leader and an activist who stared down all of the boogey men: cops, the mob, her lovers. She set the stage for resistance, taking on the interlopers who would try to take Harlem.
In American cinema and culture, the Mafia is valorized; so are all the men of the underworld. But one day, perhaps even soon, we will get to see the women—the black women, even—of the day, of that time, the rebels with no pause, immortalized on film. In 2017, producer Tim Story got the rights to St. Clair’s life. Although the characters based upon her appear in bit parts in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum, Story’s story will be all about the Madam who not only survived but thrived in a man’s, man’s, man’s world.
And I for one cannot wait to fete my bad-ass, bilingual, brilliant Harlem queen on screen.