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Communities were sometimes winners in the Numbers gambling game

Justin Kramon May 13, 2024
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In Detroit, Numbers men — who ran an underground gambling game — were known for funding legal Black-owned businesses and social services. Illustration: Dylan Miettinen/Marketplace | Vintage Postcard: Yesterdays-Papers/DeviantArt

Communities were sometimes winners in the Numbers gambling game

Justin Kramon May 13, 2024
Heard on:
In Detroit, Numbers men — who ran an underground gambling game — were known for funding legal Black-owned businesses and social services. Illustration: Dylan Miettinen/Marketplace | Vintage Postcard: Yesterdays-Papers/DeviantArt
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State-run lotteries have drawn a lot of attention lately because most of the biggest jackpots in U.S. history have been claimed in the past two years. Research shows those extra-big red zeroes are funded mostly by people at the bottom end of the economic ladder. And all those losing ticket holders don’t get much in return.

But there’s a game with a long history in this country called the Numbers. It looks a lot like the daily lottery, but the money moves very differently.

In Detroit, a woman we’ll call Esperanza typically takes around 10 bets over the phone each day. Esperanza — that’s a pseudonym — is a Numbers runner. Her customers call her to wager on combinations of the random digits that will be drawn in that evening’s lottery. There’s a complicated formula of probabilities for different sequences. 

The Numbers game has always been illegal. It was invented in Harlem, New York City, about a century ago, 40 years before legal state lotteries. Bets were taken in person then, and players gambled on digits drawn from unpredictable clearinghouse totals, the records of exchanges of money between banks. 

In Detroit in the 1940s, the Numbers became a $10 million-a-year underground industry. The game was especially big with auto workers. Esperanza worked at General Motors in the 1970s.

“It was a livelihood at the plant,” Esperanza said. “I would go out in the plant and collect people’s bets.”

A whole social world grew up around Numbers gambling. “People come play their number, they have coffee, they might have a break time,” said Esperanza. “A little gossip in there — it’s like a social network.”

For Black Detroiters then, the Numbers wasn’t just a side hustle. Redlining and segregation made it almost impossible for Black people to acquire wealth. So the Numbers was a necessary opportunity, according to Bridgett Davis, who wrote a memoir called “The World According to Fannie Davis” about her mom’s three-decade career in the Detroit Numbers.

“She noticed that her neighbors were playing numbers with bookies, and she just thought, ‘Well, I could take folks’ bets. I could do that,'” Davis said.

Bridgett Davis, a Black woman with a blue shirt and glasses, smiles for a photo on her couch.
Bridgett Davis, who wrote about her mom’s long career as a Numbers runner, at home in Brooklyn, New York. (Justin Kramon/Marketplace)

As her mom’s business grew, she found it easier to be generous with her money when friends or family needed a boost. “Her whole thing was, ‘I’m here to help Black folks get ahead,'” Davis said.

But as states began to legalize lotteries in the 1960s and ’70s, the Numbers acquired a reputation in the media as an exploitative industry.

“Because it’s an arbitrarily illegal system, they associate that with people who lack integrity,” Davis said.

It seemed to Davis that the negative depiction of the Numbers was used to help direct people toward the profitable state lottery.

“I remember these articles that came out in the ’70s that were denigrating the numbers,” Davis said. “I was stunned by it because it was so different from my lived experience. I saw the benefits of that underground economy.”

So did Felicia George, author of “When Detroit Played the Numbers,” a new history of Numbers gambling in the Motor City.

“The typical perspective of playing the Numbers is negative,” George said. “I am not trying to romanticize this. What I am saying is, we overlook the positives that came from it.”

Positives, George pointed out — like how Numbers dollars flowed into low-income Black communities. Numbers runners were typically banked by large businesses. They were headed by executives nicknamed the Numbers men. There were, of course, Numbers men who took advantage of their customers. But on the whole, they were known for supporting their communities, funding organizations like the NAACP, legal Black-owned businesses and social services the government fell short on.

“It was very hard for Blacks to get insured,” said George. “And so, these Numbers men started an insurance company. It was corporate social responsibility before it was even called corporate social responsibility.”

But as legal lotteries expanded, the Numbers receded. Esperanza in Detroit said that’s also true of her own business today, taking bets over the phone.

“It’s nothing, nothing, nothing compared to what I used to do,” Esperanza said.

Though like many with fond memories of the Numbers, she hopes to keep this game going a little while longer.

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