Stephanie St. Clair made a name for herself as a racketeer who reigned over a formidable gambling empire in Harlem. Barred from the traditional, white-dominated financial industry, she made a fortune in the underground economy of the numbers racket, earning the nickname the "Queen of Numbers."
The numbers racket — a type of lottery — wasn't just lucrative. To St. Clair, an immigrant from the Caribbean, it was also a way to uplift and support the Black community she had found in her adopted home of Harlem.
She was a fierce advocate for Black rights in New York, and became a local legend for publicly denouncing corrupt police and resisting Mafia control.
"To leave her home country, she had to be a dreamer, a risk-taker," LaShawn Harris, associate professor at Michigan State University and author of "Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy," told Insider. "St. Clair wanted more for herself, and her community."
St. Clair was born on Christmas Eve, 1897 in Guadeloupe, a French-governed archipelago in the Caribbean. In 1912, she immigrated to New York, using the long voyage and quarantine period to learn English.
New York in the 1910s was in the thick of the Progressive era's widespread social reform. St. Clair arrived during The Great Migration, when 6 million African Americans migrated to the Northeast and Midwest in search of economic opportunities and equality, away from Jim Crow era segregation in the South.
But racial segregation lingered, even in New York. As a poor, Black woman, St. Clair found that those barriers were tripled.
"Most Black women and other poor women were trapped in menial, low-wage labor, where they made $3 to $10 a week," Harris told Insider. "But St. Clair is not satisfied with that lot in life."
St. Clair, who became known for her fiery temper and sophisticated, sometimes arrogant, manner, saw more for herself. Bedecked in the latest styles — from flowing fur coats and glittering jewelry to turbans and cloche hats — she fashioned herself into someone who commanded respect, calling herself Madame St. Clair.
"The picture she painted for herself was about respectability and being seen as a proper lady, because Black women were not seen as ladies since the days of slavery," Harris said. "She thought highly of herself, and wanted others to think highly of her, too."
On April 12, 1917, St. Clair invested $10,000 of her money in an underground lottery game in Harlem, sowing the seeds of what would become one of the leading numbers games in the city.
Many banks at the time didn't accept Black customers, preventing many from legal forms of investing. Though some Black Americans spurned numbers gambling as a disreputable means of making money, others saw it as one of the few pathways to wealth — no matter how risky. It would also afford them to re-invest that money in their families and their communities, according to Harris.
St. Clair not only financed the numbers operation, but also created jobs for Harlem's Black residents and donated money to programs that promoted racial progress, Harris said. At the height of her career, St. Clair was reportedly earning around $200,000 a year, around $3.5 million today. She also became a fierce and vocal activist for the Black community, regularly publishing ads in local newspapers that educated Harlem residents about their civil liberties.
"To the members of my race," she wrote in a newspaper aimed at the Black community, the Amsterdam News. "If officers meet you on the street and suspect you of anything, do not let them search you on the street, or do not let them take you to any hallway to be searched. If the police should ring your doorbell and you open your door, refuse to let them search your house unless they show you a search warrant."
On March 14, 1930, the police arrested St. Clair for possessing "policy slips" — papers that contained information of bets placed as a part of the numbers game — and sent her to a workhouse for eight months. St. Clair got them back: She testified to investigators about the kickbacks she'd paid to police officers and about those who'd participated in the Harlem numbers game, leading to the firing of more than a dozen police officers.
After Prohibition ended in 1933, Jewish and Italian American crime families that had gotten rich on illegal booze began to notice how profitable the numbers games were.
Dutch Schultz, an infamous mob boss, set his sights on Harlem's gambling scene and gave Black and Hispanic numbers operators two options: Hand over their businesses or continue to operate while paying him fees. Anyone who refused was reportedly beaten up, even killed.
St. Clair was among a handful of operators who refused to submit, launching counter-intimidation campaigns against businesses that ran the Mafia ringleader's betting operations, according to Harris. She also tipped off the police about his activities.
Schultz tried to threaten St. Clair and even called for those under his employment to murder her. At one point, St. Clair was forced to go into hiding in a friend's cellar as several gang members hunted her down.
Their standoff ended in October 1935, when Schultz was assassinated by the Commission, a ruling body of several Mafia heads.
St. Clair famously sent a deathbed telegram to her enemy. "As ye sow, so shall you reap," she wrote, signing it "Madame Queen of Policy."
St. Clair retired from the numbers game in the 1930s, and eventually began a new phase of her life as a full-time advocate for political reform. She continued to write columns in the local paper about discrimination, police brutality, and other issues facing the Black community, according to Harris.
St. Clair's legacy lies within the broader context of the Black woman's condition, Harris said.
"She's someone who used everything in her disposal to navigate race, gender, and class discrimination and restrictions," Harris told Insider.
As an immigrant who arrived in America and pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become a larger-than-life figure, St. Clair created a rags-to-riches story for herself.
"St. Clair is someone who really didn't follow the rules, someone who bet on herself — and, at various points in her life, she won," Harris said.