Welcome Guest
Log In | Register )
You last visited March 25, 2019, 6:37 am
All times shown are
Eastern Time (GMT-5:00)

The daily lottery was originally a Harlem game — then the government wanted in

Share this news story on Facebook
Tweet this news story on Twitter
Insider BuzzInsider Buzz: The daily lottery was originally a Harlem game — then the government wanted in
511
Rating:

By Bridgett M. Davis

In the early 1920s, Casper Holstein, a black man from the Danish West Indies who worked as a porter for a Fifth Avenue store, liked to study the "Clearing House" totals published in a year's worth of newspapers he'd saved. The Clearing House was an operation that managed the exchanges of money among New York City banks on a daily basis. It occurred to Holstein that the numbers printed were different every day.

Until then, lottery games existed, but the winning numbers were often chosen in unreliable ways that could produce rigged results. According to the 2010 book "Playing the Numbers," Holstein came up with an ingenious solution. Using the Clearing House totals to produce a random combination between 000 and 999, he came up with a daily three-digit winning number for a new kind of lottery game. His invention became known simply as the numbers.

It was an immediate hit and quickly created a sprawling underground economy that moved through Harlem and other black communities in the U.S. For 60 years, the numbers reigned supreme as New York City's pre-eminent daily lottery game — until 1980, when the state decided it wanted in.

In Detroit, my own mother, Fannie Davis, ran a numbers business for 34 years. That business provided us, her children, with a solid middle-class life, including a spacious family home, beautiful clothes and college educations — and, thanks to our inheritance, generational wealth. While the numbers were illegal, and therefore had to be kept a secret, I knew about another girl with a parent who ran numbers: Her name was Francie and she lived in Harlem, and she was real to me, even though she was in fact a character in a book.

When I was 10, my mom gave me a copy of Louise Meriwether's novel "Daddy Was A Number Runner," a fictionalized account of the author's life in 1930s Harlem, where the numbers helped sustain black folks through the Great Depression, when lucky players could turn a hard-earned nickel into $30. The book, published in 1970, has a foreword by James Baldwin, who wrote, "the metaphor for this growing apprehension of the iron and insurmountable rigors of one's life are here conveyed by that game known in Harlem as the numbers, the game which contains the possibility of making a 'hit' — the American dream in black-face, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!"

I recently reread Meriwether's book — still in print thanks to the Feminist Press at the City University of New York — and her story helped me remember how vital the numbers were to black life. But The New York Times archives enlightened me about the fight of the city's black elected officials, activists and everyday people to preserve this cultural and economic institution — and how much was lost when New York State usurped the game.

Much of that loss was jobs. In 1971, The Times reported that an estimated "60 percent of the area's economic life depends on cash flow from the numbers," which employed an estimated 100,000 workers across the five boroughs. Numbers men also in many ways filled the void left by a formal economy indifferent to black residents' needs: They bankrolled many small businesses, from bars to restaurants to corner groceries, and also saved many businesses from bankruptcy. These bankers helped get out the vote, buttressed black civil rights groups and contributed to black political candidates' campaigns.

Numbers money provided a foundation from which stellar careers could be launched in everything from athletics to public service to entertainment. Colin Powell's father bought their family home with proceeds from hitting the Number. Harry Belafonte's Uncle Lenny ran a numbers racket and was an early example of success for the singer. The singer Lena Horne's father, Teddy, was a numbers operator. Stephanie St. Clair, known as Madame Queen, was one of the only women to run a successful numbers game in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, and became both an activist and major black employer. Such figures were often pillars of the community.

As early as 1971, when off-track-betting interests were looking to move in on the numbers action, Harlem activist James R. Lawson testified in favor of maintaining local control of the game before a legislative committee. "We intend to run it, come hell or high water," he said.

Six years later, Lawson proposed, in a radio address directed at Gov. Hugh Carey, that black and Hispanic numbers bankers buy franchises for 4,000 state-licensed numbers operations; the goal was to ensure that African-Americans benefited from a sanctioned lottery rather than fall victim to a "poor tax" burden. Yet Lawson and other black leaders, U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel among them, were not ultimately successful.

By 1980, the street-run business in New York was generating an estimated $800 million to $1.5 billion a year. That's why when lawmakers in Albany proposed a similar, daily pick-three lottery that year, a coalition of city and state officials feared there would be a crackdown on the numbers, and tried to stop the move. If the traditional numbers game could get legalized, the revenue could circulate in the black community and numbers workers could be legitimized and keep their jobs.

To the largely white Assembly — as the City College of New York historian Matthew Vaz has pointed out — the black and Hispanic participants in the numbers game were merely tax evaders and criminals. Also, New York legislators sold the public on the notion that a state-run version of the lottery would funnel a portion of the proceeds to education. This anticipation of lottery revenue, by the way, prompted New York legislators to reallocate education funds to other parts of the state budget.

Still, folks tried to fight back and marched through the streets to Gov. Carey's New York office. A sign posted in a Harlem Numbers parlor asked, "Does Gov. Carey knows How Many People Are Working In the Numbers Industry. He is Sending Our Families Back to Welfare. We don't Want Welfare. We Want Our Jobs."

Nevertheless, the state-run daily lottery began in September 1980, and in subsequent years the numbers game mostly faded away.

In most of these photos you see the criminal aspects of the numbers, rather than the everyday-ness — the communal, reciprocal and congratulatory qualities. Only one image captures the whimsically designed "tip sheets" used to help players choose a number to play. Another captures Old Aunt Dinah's Dream Book of Numbers, and Gypsy's Witch Dream Book of Numbers, two of many simple yet illuminating publications used as bibles for numbers players. These encyclopedic books interpreted dreams by assigning three-digit numbers to different symbols, and nearly any image or experience that could appear in a dream.

Dreams were everything to numbers players, just as dreams have deep significance in black culture. Many black folks believed when they dreamed about something specific, that spirit was blessing them with a certain number to play. This is one key way that the Numbers is intricately connected to black folks' larger sense of hoping for a better future, of getting closer to achieving the American dream.

The New York State Lottery Commission seemed to understand this, eventually adopting the slogan "All You Need Is A Dollar And A Dream." But by then, Harlem had known that for decades.

Bridgett M. Davis is the author of "The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers."

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

New York Times

We'd love to see your comments here!  Register for a FREE membership — it takes just a few moments — and you'll be able to post comments here and on any of our forums. If you're already a member, you can Log In to post a comment.

31 comments. Last comment 5 days ago by ESR54.
Page 1 of 3
Coin Toss's avatar - shape barbed.jpg
100
Zeta Reticuli Star System
United States
Member #30469
January 17, 2006
11233 Posts
Offline
Posted: March 1, 2019, 8:47 pm - IP Logged

Good article Todd.

The game was also called "policy".

Those who run the lotteries love it when players look for consistency in something that's designed not to have any. So many systems, so many theories, so few jackpot winners. 

Lep

There is one and only one 'proven' system, and that is to book the action. No matter the game, let the players pick their own losers.

    Avatar

    United States
    Member #143207
    May 27, 2013
    2967 Posts
    Offline
    Posted: March 1, 2019, 8:48 pm - IP Logged

    My Grandfather had a Candy store in the Bronx ( Arthur Ave ) booked Numbers He never bet himself and never got arrested. He made a great living . He would open the store early in the morning take the numbers and close the store at noon. He would come home and go into the bedroom and listen to the races on the radio. Go back to the store around 4 paid out whoever won and book some more numbers . 

      Coin Toss's avatar - shape barbed.jpg
      100
      Zeta Reticuli Star System
      United States
      Member #30469
      January 17, 2006
      11233 Posts
      Offline
      Posted: March 1, 2019, 8:55 pm - IP Logged

      Nydebbie,

      My father always said there wasn't a candy store or a news stand on the East Coast that could survive without 'numbers.

      He used to play at one that was across the street from a Catholic church. So he goes to play one day,l there's the guy who runs the store, a cop, and a priest. All three start looking through magazines, the priest leaves then the cop leaves. The guy that ran the store was cracking up. My father asked him what was so funny and he said, "The priest and the cop were here for the same reason you are, what number do you want to play?"

      Green laugh

      Those who run the lotteries love it when players look for consistency in something that's designed not to have any. So many systems, so many theories, so few jackpot winners. 

      Lep

      There is one and only one 'proven' system, and that is to book the action. No matter the game, let the players pick their own losers.

        Raven62's avatar - binary
        25
        New Jersey
        United States
        Member #17842
        June 28, 2005
        98332 Posts
        Offline
        Posted: March 1, 2019, 8:57 pm - IP Logged

        Interesting news story on the history of the lottery!

        A mind once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions!

        Catch-22: A dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

        Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges: When the republic is at its most corrupt the laws are most numerous.

          s5thomps's avatar - Lottery-033.jpg
          Hard Luck, Ak
          United States
          Member #23471
          October 13, 2005
          335 Posts
          Offline
          Posted: March 1, 2019, 9:46 pm - IP Logged

          Good article Todd.

          The game was also called "policy".

          I Agree!   Leave it to the FEDS to want a piece of the action. I was surprised to read that the "POLICY" lasted into the early 1980's. It's a cash cow for the states and although a portion goes to Education, those with the power of the purse I'm sure are lining their pockets or giving kickbacks to special interest groups or people. It's the "American Way!" Wink

          "We make a living by what you get, You make a LIFE by what you give!"

                                                                         Sir Winston ChurchillSun Smiley

            grwurston's avatar - Lottery-012.jpg
            I Am Going to Win Today.
            bel air maryland
            United States
            Member #90247
            April 24, 2010
            7492 Posts
            Offline
            Posted: March 1, 2019, 10:05 pm - IP Logged

            Thanks Todd, for the great  lottery history lesson!!!

            "You can observe a lot just by watching." Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player.

            The numbers will tell you what numbers to play. Pay attention to the numbers.

            Every lottery system can be improved. If you're not winning almost every day, yours can be made better.

              TheMeatman2005's avatar - lightening
              Brooklyn, NY
              United States
              Member #169719
              October 29, 2015
              1323 Posts
              Offline
              Posted: March 1, 2019, 10:43 pm - IP Logged

              My late parents had a business on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. There was a guy who would go around taking numbers. Back then they paid $600 on a $1 bet.

              Every year, when it was time for my brother to come home from college for the holidays, my Mom would hit a number straight for $600 (less a 10% [$60] tip). She then had $540 to pay for the airplane ticket plus lots of $$$ left over.

              You didn't have to bet 50 cents or $1 on a number. They took bets for as little as 10 cents.

              The Meatman 🥩🍗🍔🍖🍤🌭

              “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.” Will Rogers

              Winning happens in a flash, Like A Bolt Of Lightning!  Patriot

                four4me's avatar - gate1
                MD
                United States
                Member #1701
                June 18, 2003
                8981 Posts
                Offline
                Posted: March 1, 2019, 10:51 pm - IP Logged

                the bookmakers used to use the first 3 horses across the aqueduct race track finish line in the 9th race.

                Big John says. You don't hit the number. The number hits you!!!!

                               I'm not Big John, I'm Four4me, Big John's a friend.
                  Avatar
                  New York, NY
                  United States
                  Member #140630
                  March 23, 2013
                  8524 Posts
                  Offline
                  Posted: March 1, 2019, 11:12 pm - IP Logged

                  the bookmakers used to use the first 3 horses across the aqueduct race track finish line in the 9th race.

                  Yep. The aqueduct was the one.

                  Sometimes you do the right thing just because it’s right.

                    TheMeatman2005's avatar - lightening
                    Brooklyn, NY
                    United States
                    Member #169719
                    October 29, 2015
                    1323 Posts
                    Offline
                    Posted: March 1, 2019, 11:40 pm - IP Logged

                    the bookmakers used to use the first 3 horses across the aqueduct race track finish line in the 9th race.

                    I thought they used the last three numbers of the track handle. The track handle was the amount of total bets wagered on the races.

                    I suppose that each bookmaker used different ways to come up with their "winning numbers"

                    The Meatman 🥩🍗🍔🍖🍤🌭

                    “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.” Will Rogers

                    Winning happens in a flash, Like A Bolt Of Lightning!  Patriot

                      Avatar

                      United States
                      Member #143207
                      May 27, 2013
                      2967 Posts
                      Offline
                      Posted: March 2, 2019, 12:45 am - IP Logged

                      Nydebbie,

                      My father always said there wasn't a candy store or a news stand on the East Coast that could survive without 'numbers.

                      He used to play at one that was across the street from a Catholic church. So he goes to play one day,l there's the guy who runs the store, a cop, and a priest. All three start looking through magazines, the priest leaves then the cop leaves. The guy that ran the store was cracking up. My father asked him what was so funny and he said, "The priest and the cop were here for the same reason you are, what number do you want to play?"

                      Green laugh

                      I going to make you laugh . When I used to go to the store with my father . I would  see a few  customers in it. I would ask my father how he makes money . My father used to laugh. I never knew what he really was going until I was in High School. 

                        Nikkicute's avatar - nnjx1k
                        Wisconsin
                        United States
                        Member #123286
                        February 17, 2012
                        3747 Posts
                        Offline
                        Posted: March 2, 2019, 1:52 am - IP Logged

                        Happy belated Black History Month!!Hurray!Great Story!!

                          jmidgette's avatar - batman38

                          United States
                          Member #82483
                          November 14, 2009
                          204 Posts
                          Offline
                          Posted: March 2, 2019, 2:41 am - IP Logged

                          Good article Todd.

                          The game was also called "policy".

                          Awesome article Todd!

                          AKA DIVA I

                            Avatar
                            Simpsonville
                            United States
                            Member #163184
                            January 22, 2015
                            1751 Posts
                            Offline
                            Posted: March 2, 2019, 6:02 am - IP Logged

                            Great article and the Government, as usual, had to put their hands in the till.

                            Speaking of lotteries, wonder if Todd et al across the Hudson won NJ Mega Millions last night?