MSU Professor presents lecture on black women in the underground economy

From Left to right: El-Ra Adair Radney, professor of African American Studies, LaShawn Harris, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Michigan State University, and Mckenzie Campbell, graduate student majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. 

LaShawn Harris, PhD, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, presented her lecture, “Madame Queen of Policy: Stephanie St. Clair, Harlem’s Numbers Racket, and Community Advocacy,” on Thursday, Nov. 9 at Halle Library.

Harris discussed the involvement of black women in the illegal numbers racket in the early and mid 20th century. The talk is based on her award-winning book: “Sex Workers, Physics, and Numbers, and Runners: Black women in The Underground Economy”. 

She highlighted the life of prominent Harlem numbers banker Madame Stephanie St. Clair to show how entrepreneurs in the black numbers game used Harlem’s gambling enterprise to start profitable underground enterprises. 

Harris’s book argues that New York’s underground economy served as a catalyst in working class black women’s creation of employment opportunities, occupational identities and survival strategies that provided stability, labor autonomy and mobility. The underground economy is the illegal trade of services and goods that is hidden from the public. This exchange cannot be reached by regulators and tax collectors. 

St. Clair was one of few Harlem numbers bankers to control Harlem’s gambling business during the 1920s and 1930s. Her impressive lifestyle and reputation as a shrewd, dangerous but lady-like figure captured the curiosity of locals and non-New Yorkers. She and other black women’s work in a male dominated gambling market has been ignored by many scholars. Her career and public life have been portrayed in mainstream American cinema and television in the 1994 film Cotton club and Bill Duke’s 1997 film Hoodlum. 

She viewed the numbers bracket as an opportunity to get financial stability, wealth, and as an economic enterprise separate from whites. She used her status as a neighborhood luminary to bring attention to various political issues involving black New Yorkers. To get money for her business, she filed a lawsuit against her apartment owner claiming that she was illegally evicted from her apartment. The Seventh District Court awarded her $1000.

She owned many apartments and a personal wealth of $500,000. She earned $200,000 a year, hired many bodyguards, maids and numbers runners. She stood out for her fashion. Black women like St. Clair used their style as a political instrument to show progress evolutionarily within the race. On Dec. 30, 1929, She was apprehended by the NYPD for possession of numbers slips. She was arrested at the place where an alleged numbers bank operated. 

When she appeared in court in 1930, she claimed that because she planned to accumulate her fortune at retirement, her apartment was raided and she was arrested. The unconvinced judge and jury convicted her. After being released from prison a year later she was determined to expose the NYPD’s business ties to the numbers racket. 

She was in a huge conflict with New York City mobster and bootlegger, Dutch Schultz, when he threatened to take over the Harlem gambling scene from 1931-1935. Schultz saw a decrease in profits of Italian and Jewish families. After not getting paid, Shultz beat and killed several numbers laborers. St. Clair joined black New Yorkers in opposition of Schultz. She organized black numbers laborers who were ignored by racketeers. She smashed glass cases and stores of people who worked for Schultz and destroyed policy strips. 

She also encouraged black laborers to only conduct business with other blacks. She wanted to show Schultz that whites couldn’t take the game from them. Her conflict with Schultz ended in 1935 when he was shot in Newark, New Jersey. 

After Schultz death, she continued as a political activist. Her husband, Sulfi Abdul Hamid, was known as for his Nazi-style activism. She was charged for shooting him in 1938 after his affair with fortune teller Dorothy Hamid. She served a 10-year sentence. Her post prison life is unknown.

Harris explained the significance of learning more about black women in the underground economy and St. Clair. 

“By centering black women in the underground economy, we can get a different perspective on the African American community. Most black women turned to the underground economy because they couldn’t find decent paying jobs. Students should learn how these women were able to make space for themselves. They are only taught black history about specific class groups but not those like St. Clair,” she said. “People have heard of her but only tied to Bumpy Johnson or folklore. She doesn’t get the credit of other black figures in the 1930s because the numbers racket is male dominated.”

Natalia Escalante, junior majoring in media studies and journalism, said that she enjoyed learning about historical figures from her heritage that she didn’t know existed. 

“I learned more about my history from a different side taught in my classes and about the struggles at the time,” she said. “I was surprised to see women, especially black women in crime because you usually see white men.”

She said that everyone should learn about the subject and not just the black community. She was happy to see a big turnout 

“It’s a big part of world history,” she said. “I loved that there were a lot of people of different races.”

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