COMMENTARY: Remembering Harlem’s power couple

TALIB ABDUR-RASHID | 4/8/2021, midnight

If there was ever a “power couple” in the history of Harlem, when it was known as “The Negro Metropolis” and “The Mecca of Black America,” this was it!

She was Madame Stephanie St. Clair, a Caribbean American born in Martinique. St. Clair took her winnings from playing numbers (the grassroots version of what is now called lotto—remember Detroit Red and West Indian Archie?) and invested in herself. Through a combination of intelligence, wits and street smarts, and toughness of character, she rose to become the only woman and queen of the policy rackets (numbers) in a post-prohibition world of classic male New York gangsters.

Legendary mobsters such as the Italian, Lucky Luciano and Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz once made the mistake of thinking that the Queen was a weak link in the underground economic chain, because she was female. When they tried to muscle in on her territory, equally legendary Black American gangsters such as Bumpy Johnson closed ranks around her and backed the New York mob off.

These exploits were immortalized on film in the Hollywood movie “Hoodlum” starring another queen, the late Cicely Tyson, as Madame St. Claire and Lawrence Fishburne as Bumpy Johnson. Further, afterwards the NYPD made the same mistake in judgement as the mob. They raided the Queen’s underground economic centers (ahem), arrested her and locked her up on Rikers Island. St. Clair retaliated by writing op-eds for the NY Amsterdam News, exposing graft and corruption in the ranks of the NYPD, naming precincts.

Eventually Queen St. Clair took her money and removed herself from the sights of men who couldn’t best her by retiring and vanishing from public view. In between her colorful career and its end she married the equally colorful and legendary Harlem figure, Sufi Abdul-Hamid.

Abdul-Hamid was a social justice activist who moved to NYC from Chicago, where he organized boycotts against white-owned businesses who both exploited and discriminated against Black folk. At first Abdul-Hamid’s intelligence, militance, fiery rhetoric, fierce, no-nonsense personality, and tough grassroots organizing tactics frightened the Negro religious establishment in Chi-town.

However when Abdul-Hamid’s actions proved effective, Black Christian clergy formed a coalition with him, and waged a successful campaign for the employment of American men and women of African descent.

This was done in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Abdul-Hamid was known as Bishop Conshankin, a self-proclaimed Buddhist. By 1932 Abdul-Hamid moved to Harlem and had converted to Islam. He was already a Muslim when W.D. Fard was just beginning to teach in Detroit, taking on Elijah Muhammad as a student in formation of what eventually became known as The Nation of Islam. Eventually Abdul-Hamid’s reputation grew in Harlem as his oratorical skill, successful experience as an organizer in Chicago, and flamboyant dress (turban, cape, high boots, military shirt) carved a unique niche for him amongst Garveyites and other Black nationalists and activists, who fought the same fight as he had waged in Chicago.

Like them he preached on Harlem street corners from a step-ladder, and once again proved powerful and effective as an organizer against racist business owners; only in Harlem greedy landlords became targets as well. The greatest victory in the activists’ struggle was against Blumstein’s Department Store on West 125th Street, once known as “the Uptown Macys.”

Abdul-Hamid was the founder of the Afro-American Federation of Labor, using the term three decades before El-Hajj Malik/Malcolm X. The labor organizer was also known as “the Harlem Hitler” for his anti-Jewish rhetoric, which was actually against Harlem business owners and landlords, but was given to verbal extremism.

Nonetheless, St. Clair and Abdul-Hamid were a perfectly matched power couple, as dapper and striking in appearance as they were singular in reputation. They were proud of their race and self-determined in the North, while Black folk were being lynched in the South.

Eventually, Abdul-Hamid decided that he was going to see an additional woman. Subsequently St. Clair definitively announced her divorce from Abdul-Hamid by shooting him, non-fatally.

After her release following yet another incarceration, the Queen retired into obscurity. Abdul-Hamid married the other woman, another colorful Harlem legend named Madame Fu Futtam, creator of the famed “dream books” that were also part of the underground economy and can be seen in urban Black communities to this day.

Together the couple operated a business on Morningside Avenue in Harlem, where incense, perfumed oils, candles, artifacts and of course the dream books were sold. It was called The Garden of Tranquility.

Abdul-Hamid died piloting his own airplane in 1938. A brief obituary for him appeared in the then major news periodical, Time magazine. No films have been made about him, but books written about the history of Harlem highlight him prominently. There are books, papers and blogs about Madame St. Clair. A picture of Madame Fu Futtam appeared in Life magazine.

See what I mean? You can’t make this up! He was a legendary Harlem grassroots leader, who was married to two legendary women (though separately of course!)

I love our story!