Author and native Detroiter Bridgett M. Davis shares an excerpt from her new book, “The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.” Catch Davis at book talks in Detroit Feb. 8-10.
By Bridgett M. Davis
Numbers gambling as we know it today — the mother of today’s state lotteries — was invented in Harlem in the early 1920s. And while there’s speculation that versions of the Numbers game were introduced in the first decades of the 1900s, brought to Harlem by migrants from Cuba, the British West Indies, and Puerto Rico, historians say the widely held belief is that a black man named Casper Holstein invented the scheme as it is still played today.
Holstein, born in the Danish West Indies, was a Brooklyn high school graduate who, like the majority of colored men and women in America, was barred from using his talents in a chosen field, so he worked as a porter for a Fifth Avenue store. As the legend goes, in 1920 or 1921, he was sitting in a janitor’s room for hours, deeply studying the “Clearing House” totals printed each day in a year’s worth of newspapers that he’d saved. The Clearing House was a financial institution that facilitated the daily exchanges and settlements of money among New York City’s banks. It occurred to Holstein that the numbers printed in the paper were different every day. Within months he came up with his scheme — he’d take the first two digits from the first total published by the Clearing House and one digit from the second total and create a daily three-digit winning number. If a player hit, he or she would be paid 600 to 1. It was an elegant system for many reasons. It didn’t rely on dubious drawings in other states, or on complicated calculations; everyone could have access to the winning numbers at the same time, and the source was unimpeachable. But the most important reason for its beauty was this: unlike the policy, Numbers was a black-owned and black-controlled business.
The Numbers blossomed into a lucrative shadow economy in the early 1920s, and moved into black communities across America, thanks in large part to the Great Migration. From 1915 to 1930, well over a million black Southerners moved to the North. Given its role as a viable economic base — in Harlem alone the New York Age estimated that in 1926 the daily turnover on numbers was $75,000, with an annual turnover of $20 million — many saw it as black folks’ own stock market. While some still referred to the business as “policy” for a few years, it was the newer, wondrous system known as the Numbers that had free rein over the lottery-playing market for seventy years — until the first legal state lottery was reintroduced in 1964.
Once the game as we know it today was introduced to Detroit, it quickly became a de facto informal economy, filling the void left by a formal economy that largely excluded African-Americans. Pushing against rampant discrimination, local Numbers operators used their profits to found legitimate businesses, providing migrant blacks with all kinds of access they wouldn’t otherwise have had. They launched insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college and more. As such, these big Numbers men used their own wealth not only to enrich themselves, but also to combat racism and uplift the race.
The Numbers quickly morphed into a thriving, sprawling underground enterprise, so intertwined with the city’s lifeblood that it helped shape Detroit’s twentieth-century identity. No better example exists than that of John Roxborough, the educated, upper-class black man who brought the Numbers to Detroit; as the city’s biggest Numbers man in the 1930s, he used his largesse and business acumen to manage and invest heavily in boxer Joe Louis. Nicknamed the Brown Bomber, Louis became heavyweight champion of the world, knocking down racial stereotypes as both a hometown champ and an American hero. Today, the iconic memorial sculpture of the Brown Bomber’s fist is what greets you at the epicenter of downtown Detroit. The Fist represents his punch against Jim Crow laws as well as his opponents and has become synonymous with black Detroiters’ fight for racial justice. And the Numbers made it all possible.
The Numbers also became inextricably tied to the auto industry. In fact, the plants unwittingly abetted the Numbers’ rise. Factory workers functioned as runners, collecting bets and money from other workers, then turning it all in to bookies and bankers. Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge plant, one of the largest industrial complexes in the world, which employed 85,000 workers by the end of World War II, had for decades a flourishing Numbers business. Between 1947 and 1951, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all reported on this phenomenon as national news. One report claimed that the Numbers were a $15,000-a-day business within the Rouge plant, while another estimated them to be a $5-million-a-year enterprise. The Times lamented in an editorial that Detroit’s “numbers game” threatened plant discipline and claimed that “this evil has been linked to underworld elements that permeate the workplace.”
My parents weren’t part of that so-called underworld, but they were well aware of it. Mama and Daddy had both played numbers for a few coins and had seen their neighbors and friends play them too, regularly. Mama took notice.
On a frigid winter night, my mother showed up at her brother’s home and banged on his door. “Woke me up and everything,” Uncle John recalls. She stepped inside and stood before him, not even bothering to take off her coat.
“I want to try to bank the Numbers,” she announced.
Bridgett M. Davis is professor of journalism and the writing professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she is the director of the award-winning feature film “Naked Acts,” as well as the author of two novels, “Into the Go-Slow” and “Shifting Through Neutral.” She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.
Attend “The World According to Fannie Davis” Book Talks:
Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m.
19560 Grand River Ave, Detroit
Feb. 9 at noon
Detroit Historical Society
5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Feb. 10 at 2 p.m.
Detroit Public Library Main Branch
5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit