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. Read more…