Daughter Of A Numbers Runner Witnessed An Underground Economy In Action
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Before states ran legal lotteries, there was the underground street version - the numbers. Some numbers games were run by organized crime, and others were run by enterprising individuals whose best chance at prosperity was through the underground economy. During the '60s in Detroit, at a time when a lot of black people were shut out of job and economic opportunities, Fannie Davis started running her own numbers operation. She did well and raised her five children in a comfortable home that she owned.
One of those children is today's guest, Bridgett Davis. Her memoir about her mother is now out in paperback. It's called "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers." Her mother's profits from being a numbers runner enabled Bridgett to attend Spelman College and then go on to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She's the author of two novels and is a creative writing professor at Baruch College of The City University of New York, where she directs the writer-in-residence program. She spoke with Terry last year, when her book was first published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Bridgett Davis, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by asking you to describe the numbers at the time your mother started working as a numbers runner.
BRIDGETT DAVIS: The numbers were, first of all, illegal. They were a precursor to the legal lottery that we all know about today. So when my mom launched her business in 1958, she was stepping into an already thriving and robust business. It just happened to be underground. Black folks knew about it, and they called it the numbers. It basically existed across the country thanks to the Great Migration. Black folks had taken this business to different cities, even though it began in Harlem. So by the time my mom stepped into it in Detroit, she was able to have a ready set of customers because people were already playing the numbers. She simply went to her neighbors and friends and said, I'm now going to be banking the numbers. That was how she expressed it. You can give your bets to me.
GROSS: Explain how that worked in the underground economy.
DAVIS: It really was just a matter of making sure the authorities didn't find out but really circulating those dollars in the community over and over again. So you might go to someone's home, and you would give that person the numbers you wanted to play for that day, and you would pay for those numbers in cash. The person would take the money, like any good bookie. And then that evening when the number came out - let's say you were lucky, and you won. You would go back to that bookie and collect your winnings. And if you didn't win, the bookie kept your money. And so imagine that across dozens and dozens of people doing this throughout just one city, and you can see that it was an actual economy. People were employed by the big numbers men, as they called themselves. They had various jobs that they performed. And then you had all of your different levels of customers - small bettors and big bettors.
GROSS: And how are the winning numbers decided?
DAVIS: Ah (laughter). Well, originally, supposedly - this is the legend - one man came up with this elegant design for the numbers. He created the idea. And he got the numbers every day from the local newspaper, from a New York newspaper because he saw that something called the Clearinghouse - which I believe was a precursor to what we think of as stock market figures that appear in the paper - basically, he saw that those numbers were different all the time. And he just got the idea - I'll take the last three digits and make that the winning number for each day. Well, fast-forward, and every city that adopted the numbers created their own formula for how they would actually pick winners. Most of them chose to pick winners from the daily racing forms at various racetracks, based on the winning horses for each of the various races.
And I love to tell people that I learned that system long enough to write that paragraph in my book (laughter), and then I forgot it because it is complicated.
DAVIS: It has something to do with, you know, taking the numbers that are to the left of the decimal point once you figure out the calculations based on all these various races. It was something. I love telling people, though, that while my aunt, my Aunt Florence, my mom's youngest and remaining sister, would say to me, yeah, I never could figure out how they came up with those numbers, but Fannie, she could do it. She could do the calculations. She could take a daily racing form and do the very convoluted calculation and be able to determine what the number was.
GROSS: So if it was hard - so hard to figure out what the winning number was, how was the winning number circulated? How did people know that their number had hit?
DAVIS: The big numbers bosses employed people who helped with those calculations. Once the numbers bosses signed off on the daily winners, then the word went out - almost like a game of telephone, except they had to get it right. You know, various people called various folks that were part of that larger hierarchy and shared the news. And then it would trickle down.
GROSS: That requires a level of trust (laughter).
DAVIS: It absolutely does. It absolutely does.
GROSS: When your mother started in the numbers, she had a banker, Eddie Wingate, who was a major figure in the Detroit numbers.
GROSS: So describe what it meant to have a banker when you were running the numbers, and tell us a little bit about Eddie Wingate.
DAVIS: Having a banker was key because as a bookie, you were really an intermediary. You basically accepted bets from customers, and then you turned in those very numbers, those bets, to a higher sort of ranking person who would be responsible for paying out the winnings if, in fact, that person actually got lucky and hit, as we called it. And so Eddie Wingate was a major Detroit banker for the numbers. He was reported to have been a millionaire for years. Back in the '60s, he was already a millionaire. And he was an incredible figure because he, first of all, was notorious. He was really ruthless. And if he liked you, he was good to you. And if he didn't, you needed to get out of his way (laughter). But he was also an extraordinary businessman. He owned a lot of businesses in Detroit. And what's really exciting is that he actually launched a record company that competed with Berry Gordy's Motown, so much so that Berry Gordy very wisely bought him out for a million dollars.
GROSS: So your mother got along with Eddie Wingate when she was - he was banking numbers for her.
GROSS: But she decided eventually to bank the numbers herself. So what did that mean in terms of your mother being a kind of underground entrepreneur?
GROSS: What new responsibilities did she take on?
DAVIS: Wow. It was a big responsibility. It was a big risk because when she worked for Eddie Wingate, it was as though she got a salary. He gave her a percentage of all the proceeds, all the business that she brought to him. And so that was steady money because it was reliable. But it was just a percentage of the total proceeds that she was helping to bring into him. And she might have continued to do that because it was enough money to pay the bills, take care of the house note. It was better than how she had been living.
But then one day, she forgot to tell him that someone had played a certain number. The term is she forgot to turn it in to him. And then the number came out. It was the winning number. And that person wanted his winnings. And Eddie Wingate said to my mother, you need to come up with my money. You need to pay that. You need to pay that winning hit. And she scrambled and somehow managed to pull together the money. But it was terrifying. But after she did it, she realized, hm, I did it. You know what? If I could do it that time, maybe I can continue to be responsible in this way, and I can really have my own business.
GROSS: Describe the point of view you had as a child when you're, say, like, 7 or 8, watching your mother collect all this money, do all the math, keep track of what the winning number was, count her cash 'cause you say you have this indelible image burned in your mind of your mother sitting there counting cash.
GROSS: So what did this all look like to you as a child?
DAVIS: It was my normal. I really had no other reference. I knew that other mothers weren't like my mom, but it was simply her job. It was what she did.
GROSS: It was also anxiety-provoking, though, wasn't it? Because you must have known, even at a young age, that there was a lot of risk involved with this.
DAVIS: Yes. There was always one point in the day when it was stressful (laughter), and that's when the number was about to be announced. The anticipation of what each day's number was going to be brought a lot of anxiety because once we all knew that number, things could go either way. It could be a good day, which meant my mom didn't get hit. No one played a winning number with her that day or not for a lot of money. But the opposite could be true, too, that one or more of her customers could have actually won. Hit the number, and she was responsible for paying them the next day by noon, which was her policy. So yes, that could be really stress-inducing. And yet, what I believe, now that I think about it, is that it wasn't overwhelmingly stressful because I had never seen my mother not figure it out.
GROSS: I know the phone must have been ringing all the time at your home, but what about house calls? Did people come to put money on their number?
DAVIS: Yes. Some people - some of her older reliable customers, whom she'd been working with for many years, they preferred to come by the house because it was sort of a social interaction. It was communal. They liked Fannie. They wanted to be in her presence. And maybe they were old school, and they just wanted to put the money in her hands. They wanted to sit down and think about what numbers to play while they were at the house, sitting at the kitchen table, talking about it. What looks good? What do you think?
Also, I think that, for a lot of black folks, it was a little magical. It was such a incredibly sort of pleasurable ritual, and it gave people a way to try to give meaning to their lives for different reasons. It feels good, for instance, to say, you know, I was thinking about my father. I miss him so much. I decided to look up what his name plays for because he's really been on my mind, and so I went to the dream book, and I found that his name plays for 6-4-1. I'm going to play that today. And you feel some kind of way about it. You feel as though you've done this thing that helps you think about this person you love, that, you know, gives you a chance to win something. And if you do win, maybe your father helped you win. But many of my mom's customers called in their numbers over the phone.
GROSS: So how would your mother collect the money from them?
DAVIS: There was always - Saturdays was collecting day (laughter) because my mom let them play on credit. She let them play all week. And then at the end of the week, she collected her money from them. My stepfather or some young man that she hired that she trusted would often drive around to house to house to collect the money.
GROSS: We should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bridgett Davis, author of the new memoir "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z'S "DECEMBER 4TH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer and professor Bridgett Davis. Her new memoir is called "The World According To Fannie Davis" and is about her mother, who ran the numbers in Detroit. She had her own numbers business, which is - if you're not familiar with the numbers, it's a kind of underground version of a lottery that existed long before the lottery was legal.
Dreams played a big role in the numbers. You could dream a number and consider that your lucky number and place a bet on that, or you could look up your dream in the dream book. And I'd like you to explain what the dream book is.
DAVIS: So the dream book is like a bible to those who play and run numbers. You go into anyone's home who's familiar with and involved in the numbers, and you'll see those dream books. My mom had two in particular that she preferred. Dream books were - they proliferated, and there were many different versions of them. But the ones that I remember vividly were two - the "Three Wise Men Dream Book" and the "Red Devil Dream Book." And both of them did the same thing - they just assigned different numbers to different things. And what did you learn when you looked in a dream book? Many, many things. But primarily, you could look up any person, place or thing or experience that you dreamed and find out its three-digit equivalent. What we would say was, hm, I dreamed about fish; what does the "Red Devil" say fish plays for? You look it up, and the "Red Devil" would give you a three-digit number next to the word fish. You could look up almost anything in those books. Yeah.
GROSS: So did you or your mother rely on the dream book to play numbers, and did you and your mother actually play numbers even though your mother was a numbers runner?
DAVIS: So that's a great question because I did not have much interest at all in playing the numbers, but my mother was definitely a player. She both ran the numbers - you know, she was a bookie and a banker and also a player. In her case, playing the numbers really worked out for her. She actually was able to get our family home because she played a number and won and actually won a lot of money - never told anyone exactly how much. But she was able to put a down payment on our family home because she decided to play a combination of our home address. I was basically less than a year old, and we were living in a really lovely working-class neighborhood at that point. And my mom decided to play the digits 7-8-8. She hit. She made a lot of money, and she immediately started looking for a house. So she knew the value of winning from playing the numbers.
But I will say, also, that even though she liked to play numbers, she definitely did not play up her profits. She wasn't a gambler, ironically. She didn't go into this business and then take her proceeds and gamble them away by playing a lot of numbers. That's not what she did.
GROSS: Winning the numbers was a risky business, too. What were the risks that your family took because your mother ran the numbers?
DAVIS: The biggest risk of all was actually getting caught, actually having authorities bust your business. So that was always looming, but it wasn't made apparent. By that, I mean we just knew to keep it a secret, all of us. We understood we couldn't tell anyone because if you did, it might make its way back to authorities. But we didn't have those discussions. It wasn't like, oh, I hope we don't get busted today. My mom never said that. She just was thorough. She was very discreet, and she was consistent. Those were her qualities that mitigated, you know, the possibilities of getting caught. That was the biggest risk. The other risk was that she would get hit so big that she'd owe so much money that it would wipe her out financially. So those were the two big risks. And it's amazing to me now to think about the fact that she lived under the specter of both of them for 34 years. She ran her business for 34 years.
GROSS: There was another risk you didn't mention, and that's of being robbed.
DAVIS: Oh, yeah. There was that also (laughter). Absolutely. I mean, it's a cash business. And so she had lots of safeguards, you know, against being robbed. She kept her money in a safe in the house inside of her bedroom closet. It was a combination safe. She also had two pistols, one she carried in her purse and the other she kept in the linen closet underneath her linens. And that was necessary in part because, yes, she was involved in a cash business, and also, to be honest, we were living in Detroit at a time when it was really dangerous in many ways. So she wanted to keep us safe. She wanted to keep herself safe. And it was not an unusual precaution.
BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Bridgett Davis. Her book, "The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers" is now out in paperback. After a break, we'll hear more of their conversation, and I'll review the new season of the AMC drama "Better Call Saul." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRANDMA PLAYS THE NUMBERS")
WYNONIE HARRIS: Say, Wynonie, I was by your house last night. And guess what happened? What happened, man? Your grandma was playing the numbers. Well, you just finding that out? Well, what do you know, hm? (Singing) We found out - yes, we did. We found out - now we know. We found out. We found out that Grandma plays the numbers. We found out - yes, we did. We found out - she couldn't keep it hid. We found out. Now we know that Grandma plays the numbers. Think about them every day. Dream about them every night...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with Terry's 2019 interview with Bridgett Davis. Her book, "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers," is now out in paperback. The numbers were basically the underground street version of the lottery, the profits from running numbers in Detroit fed back into that city's black business community.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You describe a whole infrastructure of black businesses created from the profits of running the numbers. So can you tell us about that?
DAVIS: Back when the numbers were really thriving in Detroit in the '30s, '40s, '50s, even before my mom got involved, we forget how segregated this country was. And even in the North, black folks couldn't just walk into a downtown hotel, for instance, and stay there. They couldn't do that. They weren't allowed. And so numbers men were also race men, and they believed in taking their largesse and in reinvesting it in the community, starting all kinds of businesses, everything from, say, a bowling alley to an insurance company to a newspaper. I mean, these were services that were fulfilling needs that the state, that the government was not for black folks. Few people know that the NAACP was fledgling back in the day in Detroit and was infused with cash by numbers men who really propped it up and gave it life again. The Detroit chapter of the NAACP was one of its biggest chapters, and they were vital in helping the movement. And they had been buttressed by numbers men. I love hearing that because it really, very beautifully connects the role of this underground economy and black American culture and life and progress.
GROSS: Detroit started to crack down on the numbers. And there's this big raid on the Hotel Gotham, which was a black-owned hotel...
GROSS: ...That had, like, at least one room on each floor for numbers runners.
GROSS: What did that raid - a lot of people were arrested. What did that raid mean to your mother, who was trying to, you know, stay out of sight?
DAVIS: Right. I had no idea that that had happened. I mean, I was very young at the time that it happened. But I never heard her tell stories about it. So I could only imagine what that did for her or to her. And I suspect that it made her even more determined to stay low-key and relatively small, if you think of the scale of businesses - right? - and how big they can be. I think of her as the equivalent of running a mom-and-pop store as opposed to trying to, you know, buy franchises. And I think she understood that that kind of level of numbers operating or numbers rackets exposes you. It makes you more vulnerable. So I think it probably made her much more cautious.
GROSS: Detroit was a tough place in the '60s. In 1967 - that was the year of the Detroit uprising or the Detroit riots, depending on the language that you use...
GROSS: ...After an unlicensed, after-hours bar was busted by the police and everyone inside was arrested. I think it was around 100 people. A lot of people gathered around and observed how the police were treating these people, which wasn't well. And that led to, again, an uprising or a riot, depending on who's describing it. And there's a lot of burning and looting, confrontations with the police. Governor George Romney, Mitt's father, called in the National Guard. You saw tanks rolling down your street.
GROSS: What were those five days like for you? Describe your neighborhood then and what those five days were like.
DAVIS: Oh, I still remember it even though I was 7. We lived in a lovely neighborhood, a lovely northwest community called Russell Woods. And there was a park nearby. And rumors spread that Russell Woods Park was going to be a target and be vandalized and possibly set on fire. And so, of course, my parents were very concerned about, you know, the house and someone sort of coming through and sort of setting it on fire. And my dad stayed up every night during those, I believe, five days that the riots erupted and basically guarded the house. And what I remember is being told to lie prone on the floor. And we crawled around under the windows. We...
GROSS: For five days?
DAVIS: Yes, no one wanted to be walking through the house and be vulnerable to a bullet going through a window. It was so eerie. And what I also remember is that you would think it would be boisterous and loud, that kind of experience, and it could've been if the riot had made his way to our street in particular. But on the contrary, it was very quiet, and that quiet was really eerie. And then these tanks were rolling down our street, literally rolling down Broadstreet, and still, it was quiet. Like, it was very discombobulating and scary for a child to see those tanks and those men, you know, standing atop those tanks with their guns poised. It's just stunning and shocking...
GROSS: How old were you?
DAVIS: ...And frightening. I was 7.
GROSS: You write you developed a paralyzing fear of going outside after that.
DAVIS: I developed such a fear. And I sort of - I focused it around my father. I just was convinced that something was going to harm him out there in the world. And I started, like, grabbing onto his leg and not letting go. I mean, literally, like, he would be pulling his leg along and saying, it's OK, baby; it's OK. But I just couldn't get over the idea that something was coming to get us.
GROSS: How did that affect your opinion of burning and looting as a response to injustice or police violence?
DAVIS: It saddens me because, of course, it always ends up destroying our own communities, and yet I completely understand it; it's just unbelievable, pent-up frustration. And to be clear, not all of these communities, even when they are black communities, are actually sort of, you know, supportive of black life. A lot of these - my own community had a lot of businesses that were not black-owned. And even before the riots, it was apparent who was respectful of us and who wasn't, even though they were all taking our dollars. So I think all of that feeds into a sense of rage that you feel when something, you know, combusts finally and allows you to express it.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bridgett Davis. Her new book is a memoir about growing up in Detroit, where her mother ran the numbers and had a very successful business as a numbers runner and banker. And the memoir is called "The World According To Fannie Davis" - Fannie Davis being Bridgett's mother. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer and writing professor Bridgett Davis. Her new book is called "The World According To Fannie Davis." It's a memoir about her mother, who was a numbers runner in Detroit in the 1960s.
In 1972, Detroit legalized the state lottery. How did the original legal lottery compare with the numbers?
DAVIS: Originally, the legal lottery was not direct competition with the numbers. It was different. It was a weekly drawing. It was more like a sweepstakes. If you bought a ticket, you did not get to choose your numbers. And so it seemed as though it was more like, today, you would play the Mega Millions, you know. It wasn't a daily experience. And my mom predicted that it would not affect her business, and it didn't. People still played their daily numbers with Fannie because in that case, they did get to choose their numbers. And so it was a more pleasurable experience, still, playing the numbers than it was playing the legal lottery. But a lot of people did both.
GROSS: And that changed in 1977 when it became a daily lottery?
DAVIS: Ah, then it all changed in 1977. And I am convinced that the Michigan State Lottery Commission finally got around to their goal, which was to be in direct competition with the numbers. It just took five years.
GROSS: How did your mother manage to stay afloat while competing with the official daily lottery?
DAVIS: Somehow she landed on this idea that you can't - if you can't beat them, join them. So she decided what she would do is she would use the daily winning numbers that the lottery provided as the winning numbers for her underground lottery system, for her numbers operation, and so that way, the biggest advantage of the daily lottery was no longer an issue. And what was that advantage? Every evening on the news, the local TV news broadcast, they would announce the winners of the daily lottery. And people loved that because everyone found out at the same time. The winning number was not based on some convoluted formula that came from various racetracks. You didn't have to worry about someone getting the number wrong or claiming that the number had changed or not paying you because they said that, you know, that's not really the winning number. It took away all of that.
So it was very clean and elegant. And so my mom thought, well, how do I compete with that? Here's how I compete with that. I'll use the same numbers. It worked. People continued to play their numbers with her.
GROSS: What was left of your mother's business when she died of cancer? And what year was that?
DAVIS: My mother died of cancer in 1992. And at the point she died, my sister, Rita, had taken over the business and had taken in her customers and had begun to run the business, which she was quite capable of doing because she had always helped my mother out over the years. And my sister managed to keep running the business, I would say, for not quite a couple more years. And what it did do was provide for my nephew, my mother's grandson, to complete college. That was a promise that we had made to her. We knew it was very important to her that he finish school because she died when he was 20. He was in college when she died. And so those proceeds that my sister collected from the smaller version of the business were a very important infusion because that money enabled him to finish college.
GROSS: Your mother had five children and lost three of them in the 1980s. Your 33-year-old brother was shooting pool at a neighborhood bar. He got into an argument. He saw the guy had a gun, and when your brother ran out, he was shot in the back and killed. Your 37-year-old sister, Dianne, was shot and killed by her husband in a murder-suicide after she told him she wanted a divorce. And your 35-year-old sister had a heart attack and died. That's a lot of tragedy to survive in one decade. How did you handle that?
DAVIS: I don't know. That's the completely honest answer. I do not know. I just remember feeling as though I could not add more of a burden to my mother, that the last thing I wanted to do was give her something more to worry about by having to worry about me. And so I know that that enabled me to soldier through.
GROSS: One of the things I love about your book is seeing how your family's history connects to the larger history of African Americans and, you know, the larger story of the Great Migration because your parents migrated from Jim Crow Tennessee to Detroit in the 1950s. Your mother's grandparents were slaves.
GROSS: And so, you know, the fact that your mother worked in the illegal economy, the underground economy - when your grandparents are slaves...
GROSS: ...The fact that you're able to make a living at all is kind of amazing. You know, the history of slavery in America - it's the undercurrent of so much in American history. Like, you can't understand American history without understanding that so many black people in America are the descendants of slaves.
GROSS: And I feel like, although you don't spend a lot of time on that in the book, that it's just kind of, like, the subtext of a lot of the book.
DAVIS: Exactly. You know, there are a couple of things I really have thought a lot about around this whole idea of slavery and how it connects to both my mom's story and also the numbers, right? So first, with my mom, she was entrepreneurial because she got to witness that in her own home. Her father was entrepreneurial. He basically had his own plastering business and even employed others. He was pretty successful at it.
But what's really extraordinary - the reason I think my mom believed in luck so much is that her father was very lucky in the sense that white folks did not confiscate the property that he was able to purchase. And it's stunning when I think about it. And I have done the research because, for instance, he bought his first piece of land in 1919. That is the year of the Red Summer. It was called the Red Summer because at that point, there were more lynchings across the South than ever in history. And many of them were spurred by whites' effort to grab land from black folks. So people don't often know the connection between the confiscation of black folks' land and lynching.
So there's that piece - just the fact that he was able to hold onto his land enabled him to be able to provide for all of his children, which enabled my mother to be the person she was and to have witnessed his ability to thrive. All of that affected her skill set, her understanding of what she could do when she came to Detroit. I'm convinced that she made a way out of no way because she understood what was possible. So I feel like all of those things really actually connect. And that's why I tell people, to me, this is a quintessential American story.
The connection to the numbers, for instance - many people are not aware that the 13 colonies had legal lotteries for a long time. In fact, the famous slave Denmark Vesey, who went on to lead a slave revolt, he actually bought his freedom with proceeds from a lottery that he won in 1799. So I'm stunned and amazed and not amazed at the same time of the interconnectedness of all of these tales because, again, this is the story of America.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for writing the book. It's a great book. And I want to thank you for our conversation. I really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much.
DAVIS: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
BIANCULLI: Bridgett Davis was interviewed by Terry Gross last year. Her book, "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers," is now out in paperback. Coming up, I review the two-night season premiere of "Better Call Saul," televised Sunday and Monday on AMC. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "INTO THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.