Sheila McClear | Longreads | January 2019 | 14 minutes (3,876 words)
Fannie Mae Davis migrated to Detroit from the South in 1955. By the time she started taking penny-bets from the neighbors, she was supporting five children and an ill husband who was unable to continue working at Detroit’s auto plants. The Numbers was an illegal underground betting scheme, a specific 3-digit system where players picked their own numbers. Born in Harlem in the 1920s, it spread throughout the country, mainly by way of African-American neighborhoods, although it was played by everyone and continues to be played in some communities today. It found particularly fertile ground in Detroit, due to booming industrial jobs and a large working- and middle-class African-American population. In 1970, police estimated that 1 in 15 Detroiters, or 100,000 people, played the Numbers every single day (except Sunday, when business was closed).
As the Numbers grew, so did Fannie Davis’s good fortune. As she climbed the ranks in bookmaking, from a bookmaker to a “banker,” she brought her family into the middle class and the American dream. Success came with a catch: she could tell no one outside her family how she made her money.
Even when Michigan started a legal lottery in 1972, Fannie found a way to keep the business going. Meanwhile, she was able to own property, raise her children in comfort, and provide them with an education. Still, she paid a price for her success in worry and instability, constantly girding herself against the next “hit” — a major payout for a winning number that could wipe her savings out completely.
Novelist Bridgett M. Davis, professor at Baruch college and Fannie’s youngest child, witnessed it all, and ever since she has fiercely protected her mother with her silence — until now. In her new memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, Davis paints a warm, loving portrait of her mother and their tight-knit family — not untouched by tragedy despite their good luck — and what it was like to grow up with the Numbers constantly playing in the background. “Three-eight-eight straight for a quarter. Uh huh. Four-seven-five straight for fifty cents. One ten boxed for a dollar…,” her mother would murmur into the phone every day. The book’s narrative shifts between family scenes set during some of Detroit’s most tumultuous years and a history of the Numbers, then and now, as well as what the game has meant for the African-American community over time.
Sheila McClear: This is the first time you told the story, in this book. How hard has it been to keep a secret like this your entire life?
Bridgett M. Davis: I hit a moment in my life and I really felt frustrated by it, and I think that had a lot to do with just getting older. Something shifted in my understanding and my thinking, and suddenly I thought, maybe I’m doing her a disservice by not telling the story.
I used to hide it because it was illegal and if we told anyone, it would put her at risk. Then I didn’t tell anyone because I was just used to not telling anyone. Then I worried what people would think about it. But then eventually, as the years kept going by, I realized, maybe it’s important for me to share this story. Maybe not telling is somehow not fully honoring what she pulled off, because it was born out of necessity, and she managed to figure out how to make a way out of no way.
So you went to your mother’s only surviving sister, your Aunt Florence, to ask permission to tell your mother’s story.
In 2010, my aunt was turning 80. And I decided that I would finally go to Detroit, sit down at her table, and ask her permission. Her immediate reaction was: Yeah, you should tell that story, and I’ll help you tell it, because people should know. I thought, well yeah, from her point of view, she’s just proud of her.
I hit a moment in my life…. something shifted in my understanding and my thinking, and suddenly I thought, maybe I’m doing her a disservice by not telling the story.
What was the world according to Fannie Davis, your mother?
She thought that God helps those who help themselves. She really believed that a work ethic was everything. That if you really wanted to achieve something in life, your job was to just do the work, to step forward and really try to achieve something for yourself. At the same time, she believed the people who were trying to improve their lives deserved help, and that was something really key to her life principles.
If you see others trying to better their lives, help them. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that my mother was defined by her generosity. Her identity was tied to her ability to be generous and to help other people. And so that is one distinctive way that she looked out onto the world.
Another characteristic about her worldview was that she believed that you should thrive in life, not just survive. That that was your right as a human being. And this was radical for a black woman who grew up, who was born in 1928, that came of age in the mid-century America. This idea that you were entitled to exactly what the Declaration of Independence promised, that pursuit of happiness, she took that seriously. A lot of black Americans at the time thought that they had to sacrifice, they whatever they could get was good enough, and that you shouldn’t ask for too much.
And her feeling was, I’m not better than anyone, but I’m as good as anyone.
Could you give a rundown as to how it worked in Detroit when your mother was an operator?
When she started out, it was a very small business. It was what they called a penny business, and she was taking very small bets for just a few cents per customer. It was a 500 to one payout. So a penny could turn into $5. That’s good money.
So people played their coins, as they say, and that was how she started, by taking in all these bets, taking their coins, and having a reserve, thanks to her brother, who loaned her that initial $100, in case someone did hit. Someone could place a bet for 15 cents, and they could end up with $75 possibly.
So that’s really how it works when you’re, as they call it, holding the business. When you are the banker, you have to have a stockpile of cash so that, whomever hits, you could pay them. Now, you’re collecting money every week from people who don’t hit, and your profit is the difference between what you collect and what you have to pay out in hits.
And so as the business grew, she morphed into a bookie, which is the middle woman, so to speak. So, now, there’s a really big banker who can pay off those hits, because the hits are now more because the bets are higher, and she’s collecting more money from people playing with her. Now they’re playing for 50 cents or a dollar or two dollars. That adds up. But the potential wins are higher too.
So she graduated to being her own banker at a higher level. And she took several people’s books… A book is simply someone who has several people placing their bets with them.
She went from turning her books over to a bigger person who took a cut of her money but protected her financially from big hits, to being independent and taking on her own financial risk, and eventually taking on the books of others.
Yeah, it is almost like a corporate structure, absolutely.
I’m interested in how you write about how bettors pick their numbers and the whole cottage industry that sprung up around that. There were tip sheets and dream books, semi-crooked storefront churches that gave out numbers. People spoke of hunches, which seem like a half logical, half magical way to settle on a number.
You know, there are numbers everywhere if you stop to think about it. Numbers pretty much dominate our lives. And if you are a gambler who is looking for that lucky combination of numbers, then all of that becomes a sign sometimes for you. Oh wow, seeing those three digits on that license plate tells me I should play that number. And you need that in a way because the odds are so great. Your odds are a thousand to one that you’ll hit this number, and there are myriad combinations. So there has to be some way for the bettor to think that they are mitigating the vast odds.
I think there are people who just simply believe in signs and move through the world that way. So if you’re playing numbers and you’re looking for signs, oh my goodness. You know, someone’s street address, someone’s birthday, the address to your favorite store. You go to the restaurant, the diner to have lunch and you look at your bill and you say, “Whoa, my bill came to $3.42.” So there’s that. And then there was dreaming. Ever since numbers have been around, people have managed to make that connection, that the numbers you dream are the best numbers. Somehow, it’s as though your subconscious or God or the spirit world is giving you these numbers. And some of that, as I speak about in the book, has to do with the power of dreams in black culture that really dates back to African culture.
You don’t have to literally dream digits, you could dream about something, and then you go to your handy dream book, the Numbers player’s bible basically, and look up what that dream plays for. And I don’t know if you’ve seen a dream book, but they’re fascinating. They’re filled with objects and things and places and people’s names and numbers assigned to them. So if you dreamed about fish — wow, that’s really lucky to dream about fish because in this dream book, fish might play for, I’m making up a number, 4-9-7. So you think, ‘Well, I’m playing that number today.’
Lotteries were banned… in part because African-Americans were acquiring money from the lotteries. The most famous one was Denmark Vesey who was a slave who bought his freedom in part with $1500 of winnings from a lottery in 1800.
During the time when your mom was running Numbers, there seemed to be a campaign in the 60s and 70s in the Detroit media against Numbers and Numbers players, along with many busts on operators. What was the misconception about people who played the Numbers?
There were a couple major misconceptions, and the first one was that only black folks played Numbers. Not true. White folks did like to play Numbers too. Whites played Numbers from the beginning. Often in the suburbs and the rural areas.
And clearly there were real Numbers operations that were run by whites in much of the history of the numbers. Blacks did not dominate or control the Numbers for very long before whites stepped in and began to take parts of those businesses away.
The other one is that people who play Numbers are being taken advantage of. That they’re somehow being duped and being sort of, having their money taken from them because they foolishly think that they’re going to win. So [that idea] takes away all of their agency.
Do you think this was a more racist misconception?
Absolutely, yeah. I mean, the idea was to tie this underground Numbers operation to black folks’ sort of degeneracy, because yes, it was illegal but a lot of things that are illegal are not necessarily wrong. Blacks did dominate in the playing of Numbers, and because blacks created the Numbers and because blacks were making a lot of money within the community off of the Numbers, the idea was to really denigrate it and to say that they were being exploited, or that they were somehow inferior in character for even involving themselves in the Numbers.
Once the decision was made by these various states to legalize the Numbers, the narrative immediately shifted. Suddenly it wasn’t so bad. You were doing something that was legal now. So it’s fascinating that I witnessed that.
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You talked about how Numbers operators in Detroit used their profits often in good ways for the community, and specifically for African-Americans.
Yeah, very few people know this, and I’m sure that it happened all over the country, but Detroit was unique. Detroit was, among other things, a real central place for the Civil Rights Movement, and so that just I think really emphasized the impact the Numbers men and women had there, mostly men. One of the key things they did was to help support these fledgling civil rights organizations. The NAACP and the National Urban League were often barely getting by, but that Numbers money really kept them afloat. The Numbers money helped to get behind certain black officials, politicians who were running for office.
And the most vivid example of how the Numbers really helped the community… I talk [in the book] about how blacks couldn’t get housing loans because of FHA [Federal Housing Administration] policy in this country, which a lot of people didn’t understand or realize, was absolutely policy. And so a lot of Numbers men would actually loan money to home buyers.
Is it true that the Numbers in Detroit were ultimately controlled by the Italian mafia?
And the majority of number operators were black?
Yes. Well, it shifted. Blacks founded it. Blacks moved it through various cities, in part due to the Great Migration. They brought the numbers with them, so to speak, or back South. But sometime around the period when organized crime, the mafia, realized that they were going to lose some income because Prohibition was no more — they made good money during Prohibition — they began looking for other things. And they didn’t have to look far to see the kind of money that was being generated by the Numbers.
There were only two numbers men that were women in Detroit, and your mother was one, and I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t in competition with the other one. In fact, they helped each other.
They were friends. Yeah, there was no need to be competitive because there was enough business to go around. And they each had their own books, as they say, and they had their own loyal customers.
I guess from the outside it would seem odd, it would seem as though they’d be competitive, but they weren’t. They in fact were such a help to one another because both of them either had stockpiles of cash or needed an influx of cash for a particular hit, you know, to pay a hit off. And because they had that kind of cash flow, both of them knew they could depend on the other if they needed it. Pearl Massey was her name. She died not that long ago.
So the first state lottery to become legal was in 1964, and the Michigan Lottery became legal in 1972. However, your mother’s business held steady when the legal lottery started, and people kept playing the Numbers.
Right. Most people just grew up and there was always the lottery, but believe it or not, for well over a hundred years, it was illegal in the United States to have lotteries. They used to be legal way back in the beginning of the country’s sort of founding, and then for various reasons, some of which were racial, lotteries were banned. They were banned in part, I’ll just say very quickly, because African-Americans were acquiring money from the lotteries. The most famous one was Denmark Vesey [who] was a slave who bought his freedom in part with $1500 of winnings from a lottery [in 1800].
It dawned on her that you really can’t beat the house…. If you can’t beat them, you should join them… Her thing was, you want to be able to trust the winning numbers, okay, we’ll use those numbers that appear on TV every evening.
So when Michigan allowed the lottery to become legal in ’72, it was only a weekly lottery. So once a week, you could buy a ticket and the number is already on there, and you could take your chances for this weekly drawing. That was very different from the Numbers.
The Numbers was a daily game, and it had digits you could choose. Because, remember that whole mystical quality? You want to be able to say, ‘Oh, I dreamed about my grandfather, I have to play his name.’ People wanted those options. So because the legal lottery didn’t offer any of that initially, the Numbers were not threatened.
For five years, Michigan only had a weekly lottery… [but] their goal all along was to find some direct competition with the Numbers, and they found it. They came out with the the daily [called the Daily 3]. And then they just usurped the entire system. They didn’t even try to adjust it and change it. The state, all states, but Michigan in particular, just adopted the language of the Numbers, ran ads that said, “Play a hunch.”
It’s like the state just took the language that African Americans that had adopted….
Absolutely. To actually see the deliberate sort of approach to usurp this business that blacks had created was stunning, because there it was. There it was in the old newspaper ads that I found, saying exactly, “Play your birthday. Play your name.” It’s pretty crazy.
My mom was convinced that people would stay loyal to her, and for years, they did. But when that daily option came, well first of all, how easy is that to play the daily. They had ticket terminals everywhere — at corner stores. So it was easy and accessible. You didn’t have to hide a thing, because it was legal.
And the biggest thing [about the Daily Lottery] that created real competition for my mom and others is that they announced the winners on television every night.
Why was that competition?
Because the Numbers — anything that’s underground, informal, illegal — runs the risk of people exploiting it: changing winning numbers, not paying off a winning ticket.
It was pretty well understood that the Mafia knew how to fix numbers based on the amount of numbers people played, the various numbers people played. The mafia would then design a winner that had the least amount of people having played it, so it wasn’t on the up and up in the same way. People didn’t have to worry about that when they played the numbers with the state.
Your mom’s major coup was that she started accepting bets for both the legal lottery and the illegal Numbers. Why people would place bets with her for the legal lottery?
She came out with that idea in Vegas, and she said she just was on the floor and it dawned on her that you really can’t beat the house. For her that meant, there’s no way I’m going to beat the state on this. But at the same time, if you can’t beat them, you should join them.
Her thing was, you want to be able to trust the winning numbers, okay, we’ll use those numbers that appear on TV every evening.
So she didn’t use Numbers’ winning numbers anymore, which came from either horse-racing results or digits that were handed down by the syndicates and often fixed. She used the state’s winning numbers.
The Numbers started using the Lottery numbers. The one caveat [about the Numbers] had always been, Can we trust these numbers? Well once they’re on TV, everyone can.
And so, why not just go to the party store [“party store” is a Detroit name for a corner store or bodega -ed.] and play there as opposed to with Fannie? That’s the question. Well, Fannie will let you play on credit. Put your numbers in on Monday, you don’t have to pay me until Saturday. Fannie is going to offer you a bigger ratio payout. The state offers 500 to one, I’m going to offer you 600 to one.
That’s very canny.
Wasn’t that canny? Also, the state puts a cap on your winnings. Oh, you can only win up to $550 from the state. Well Fannie says, “I don’t have that cap. I can go higher.” I think what it was is if you won more than that, you had to have your check mailed to you. She said, “Listen, you can get your money the next day if you play with me.” You see?
The other advantage that my mother offered was that you didn’t pay taxes. When you won with her, you didn’t pay taxes on those winnings. That’s a big draw.
And also there was this sense of, ‘You can trust me, I’m going to ask you how your kids are doing, you know me, we have a relationship, you can sit and take as much time as you want.’
You were middle class but it was still tenuous because of the precariousness of your mom doing numbers.
You could have been wiped out in a hit.
Growing up, were you ever aware of that, or did your mom shield you from that?
That kind of precarious lifestyle was not overtly apparent. My mom was a domestic magician, with a brilliant sleight of hand, so that we always felt secure, and I never worried about our lives or where the next meal was coming from, or whether she could afford to keep us in our home. None of those were concerns of mine.
And yet, you can’t possibly grow up in a household where the business is so high risk and not intuit that sense of precariousness. And I saw it in small ways. My mom was stressed out a lot, and I saw it in her need to rest and step away from the vagaries of the business. We understood and intuited how much stress and pressure she was under. So I didn’t see it in literal ways. I saw it in all of these sort of intangibles.
You wrote that people in Detroit still play the Numbers. Why do people prefer it still?
I think it’s definitely an older population that still plays it. There’s loyalty. There’s a distrust of the state, and there’s community. It’s a ritual. It’s how you check in with one another. It’s really a way to literally help your neighbor. Older Detroiters are using a lot of that extra income to manage their lives in the city. All of those things are what lead to someone saying, “Yeah, I’m going to keep putting my numbers in with her. Why should I go and take [my money] to the party store and basically pay the state?”
You wrote that you played the Lottery regularly here in New York. Your mother called you lucky growing up. And today as an adult, what does the idea of luck mean to you?
That’s a great question. Well I think for my mom, luck was always about preparation meeting opportunity. I think for me, maybe because she sort of christened me a lucky person, I feel as though I inherited luck. I was just a lucky child for so many reasons, so I carry that sense of an internal good luck charm. I really believe that, and I think it’s important for me to honor it and be protective of it, and also to sort of take that luck and push it out to the world. That feels like a mission for me.
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Sheila McClear is a freelance writer living in New York City. She is the author of the memoir The Last of the Live Nude Girls.
Editor: Dana Snitzky