The Numbers: A Daughter of Detroit Tells the Family Secret
By BETH HARPAZ
Long before the government went into the lottery business, lots of people played betting games called the “numbers.” A network of individuals took bets, tracked odds, and managed payouts. But unlike state-run lotteries, numbers games were illegal. Nobody paid taxes on earnings, and the activity took place underground.
Baruch College Professor Bridgett Davis grew up with a mother who built a thriving numbers business in Detroit beginning in the late 1950s. Her new book, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, tells the story not only of her own family, but also of a vibrant, working-class African-American community that Davis calls “the blue-collar black bourgeoisie.”
Numbers operators were often “pillars of the community,” Davis said at a talk about her book held at The Graduate Center, CUNY. They created jobs, gave loans to African-Americans when banks would not, and supported civil rights organizations. Fannie Davis’ business not only paid for her family’s home, clothes, and cars, but she also dug into her pocket to help anyone down on their luck.
Still, the family business was kept hidden from friends, teachers, and neighbors. One day, Davis’ son asked about his grandma Fannie, and Davis realized she had kept her mother’s life “a secret from her own grandchildren.” She decided to write the book after an aunt encouraged her, saying, “What Fannie did was unheard of and people ought to know.”
The critical reception for The World According to Fannie Davis has been remarkable, including a rave review in The New York Times and an NPR interview with Terry Gross. But Davis seems most grateful for the reaction from readers who had similar experiences growing up. At one event, Davis said, an “older man got choked up telling me how grateful he was. What was he doing? Remembering people who worked really hard and made these choices to give them a better life.”
She added: “Those of us out there who have my particular background are hidden from public view. … We need to think much more broadly about who’s valuable and whose story needs to be told.”