Numbers games were a pervasive form of gambling in African-American urban communities from around the turn of the twentieth century until the late 1970s, when state lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling were instituted. Until that time, the local numbers runner was a familiar figure in black neighborhoods throughout the United States, especially in Harlem, and daily street life was often organized around placing bets and collecting winnings.
There are accounts of numbers games, also known as policy gambling, in New York's white and black communities well before the Civil War, but it was not until decades later that numbers games gained real popularity among African Americans. Extremely high rates of participation made policy gambling a central economic feature of African-American urban life, with small businesses such as bars, hairdressers, and candy stores serving as collection points, or "drops."
In the nineteenth century, winning numbers were chosen from a lottery or roulette wheel. By the 1920s, rather than using lotteries, the results of which could be easily manipulated, bankers drew the winning result from the last three digits of the total volume of the daily New York Stock Exchange trades. Although odds varied from place to place, even within New York City, players attempting to match the winning numbers faced odds of one thousand to one. Those odds could be enhanced by "combinating," or betting on several groupings of the same numbers. Winners stood to gain returns of five hundred to one or even greater on a bet of as little as five or ten cents, but that return represented only a small percentage of the total bettings. Winners traditionally paid ten percent of their winnings to the runner, who was responsible for taking bets and making payments. The runner was often a charismatic fixture in the neighborhood, and a prodigious mathematician. The most famous runner in the heyday of Harlem's 1920s numbers racket was "Walking Jack" (the nickname of Alec Jackson), who was capable of retaining hundreds of numerical combinations in his memory daily. A similar figure, but from a later period, was evoked by Malcolm X in his autobiography's presentation of West Indian Archie.
For approximately every one hundred runners there was one collector, who organized the day-to-day workings of the operation, and who, together with the runner, took up to twenty-five percent of total bets as a salary. The collector was also responsible for bribing police and vice squads. At the top of the organization was the "wheel" or banker, of whom there were dozens in Harlem in the 1920s. The bankers were millionaires who controlled huge sums of money and lived legendarily lavish lifestyles financed by a percentage of total winnings as high as thirty-six percent. The most famous policy banker of the 1920s was Casper Holstein (1877–1944), a West Indian-born former porter who ruled his gambling empire from Harlem's Turf Club. Holstein had a reputation as a powerful tycoon during the Harlem Renaissance. Considered one of the most important black philanthropists of the 1920s, Holstein sponsored writing prizes for Opportunity magazine and donated money to build Harlem's first Elks Lodge. He later became increasingly involved in West Indian nationalist movements and had all but left numbers by the time of his death in 1944. Another important banker was Madame Stephanie St. Clair, who in the 1920s and 1930s openly boasted of her status as "Harlem's Policy Queen."
New York's numbers games were traditionally the biggest such enterprise in the country (Brooklyn had its own set of winning numbers), but African-American communities in many cities—including Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Paterson, New Jersey—supported policy gambling. Chicago's numbers industry was started by "Policy Sam" Young before the turn of the century, and by 1930 there were 350,000 bets per day being given to "policy kings" like John "Mushmouth" Johnson and Dan Johnson. The twelve million dollar-per-year industry controlled black votes in Chicago, and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to the campaigns of Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, who in return only minimally enforced gambling laws.
There were many ways for bettors to choose numbers, but one of the most common demonstrates how closely numbers gambling was intertwined with African-American urban culture. Numbers were often chosen with the aid of "dream books," which assigned numerical figures to powerful words or to the appearance of certain themes in a dream. When the beloved comedienne Moms Mabley died in 1975, many gamblers bet and won with 769, the dream book number for death. In addition to dream books, many gamblers used birthdays, anniversaries, or other significant dates to select numbers. In 1969, when Willie Mays hit his 599th home run, huge numbers of gamblers bet the next day on the number 600—unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, two forces combined to create changes in the policy gambling industry in New York. First, the Manhattan District Attorney's office made a concerted effort to shut down the numbers racket in Harlem, a move that was only partially successful due to the police cooperation that had made widespread policy gambling possible in the first place. Second, white gangsters (Dutch Schultz in particular), who had previously concentrated on prohibition liquor activity, saw the huge profits of numbers games and started to enter the business. Although Schultz's career in numbers was brief, control of the industry did change hands. From the 1940s until well into the 1960s, numbers games were dominated by white organized crime figures.
Despite the fact that policy gambling was no longer a locally controlled business, numbers thrived in Harlem. Reliable statistics are difficult to find, but by the 1960s it was estimated that the New York numbers games employed thousands of people in a six hundred million dollar-per-year industry, representing as much as sixty percent of Harlem's total economic life. The importance of policy gambling in African-American urban life up to the present is validated by the portrayal of numbers runners and policy bankers in the works of writers such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X.
Although groups like the Forty Thieves, and figures such as Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson (the inspiration for the movie Shaft ), had remained active in policy gambling under the domination of Jewish and Italian organized crime figures, it was only during the 1960s that blacks began to reassert their presence in the industry. This sometimes meant demonstrating their power by becoming involved in politics. In the 1964 presidential election, for example, some runners were instructed to offer a one-dollar free play to Harlemites who promised to register and vote against Barry Goldwater. By this time there had been many changes in the way numbers games ran. Average bets had increased to fifty cents or one dollar, and the corresponding payoffs were much higher. Also, the winning number was now determined not by the New York Stock Exchange volume, but by the last three digits of the total amount of money bet (the pari-mutuel "handle") at the local harness racing track.
In 1980, attempts by New York and many other states to pre-empt numbers games with institutionalized legalized lotteries led to public demonstrations in Harlem. The state prevailed, however, and these lotteries, combined with the opening of Off-Track Betting offices and the enforcement of laws that made the taking of more than five hundred numbers bets a felony, weakened the popularity of "Harlem's favorite indoor sport." Nonetheless, policy gambling continued to be a prominent feature of urban life, though increasingly run by Latinos.
Numbers games have been attacked as a means of exploiting poor blacks. Indeed, policy gambling has undoubtedly had an adverse net financial affect on African Americans and their communities, with masses of working-class or chronically unemployed people regularly wasting a significant portion of their income. However, arguments have also been made, particularly when policy gambling was being threatened by lotteries starting in the 1970s, that numbers games at least kept money in African-American neighborhoods and financed small black businesses, or even occasionally saved them from bankruptcy. These factors, as well as the traditional thrill of gambling, have kept numbers gambling alive, with law enforcement officials in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, and Baltimore regularly closing down operations.
Cook, Fred J. "The Black Mafia Moves into the Numbers Racket." New York Times Magazine (April 4, 1971): 26–27, 107–108, 110, 112.
Drake, St. Clair. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1945.
Ianni, Francis A. J. Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.
McCall, George J. "Symbiosis: The Case of Hoodoo and the Numbers Racket." In Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folk Culture, edited by Alan Dundes, pp. 419–427. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
McKay, Claude. Harlem, Negro Metropolis. New York: Dutton, 1940.
jonathan gill (1996)
"Numbers Games." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/numbers-games
"Numbers Games." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved March 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/numbers-games
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