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Playing the Numbers

Playing the Numbers

Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, Graham White

ISBN 9780674051072

Publication date: 05/15/2010

The phrase “Harlem in the 1920s” evokes images of the Harlem Renaissance, or of Marcus Garvey and soapbox orators haranguing crowds about politics and race. Yet the most ubiquitous feature of Harlem life between the world wars was the game of “numbers.” Thousands of wagers, usually of a dime or less, would be placed on a daily number derived from U.S. bank statistics. The rewards of “hitting the number,” a 600-to-1 payoff, tempted the ordinary men and women of the Black Metropolis with the chimera of the good life. Playing the Numbers tells the story of this illegal form of gambling and the central role it played in the lives of African Americans who flooded into Harlem in the wake of World War I.

For a dozen years the “numbers game” was one of America’s rare black-owned businesses, turning over tens of millions of dollars every year. The most successful “bankers” were known as Black Kings and Queens, and they lived royally. Yet the very success of “bankers” like Stephanie St. Clair and Casper Holstein attracted Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, and organized crime to the game. By the late 1930s, most of the profits were being siphoned out of Harlem.

Playing the Numbers reveals a unique dimension of African American culture that made not only Harlem but New York City itself the vibrant and energizing metropolis it was. An interactive website allows readers to locate actors and events on Harlem’s streets.

Praise

  • Long before the arrival of glossy state-run lotteries in the 1960s and ’70s, smaller lotteries—illegal, but almost as well-organized as a Powerball drawing—thrived in poor neighborhoods. In Chicago, the lotteries were known as the policy racket. In New York, they were called the numbers game. The history of these illicit enterprises is a picaresque mélange of race and class, business acumen and organized crime. A significant part of the story—Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s—receives a thorough and insightful treatment in Playing the Numbers, which recounts a flowering of black entrepreneurship in addition to capturing how integral the numbers game was to the lives of average Harlemites… Playing the Numbers brims with fascinating, colorful stories about a little-known facet of New York life.

    —Michael J. Agovino, Wall Street Journal

Authors

  • Shane White is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.
  • Stephen Garton is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.
  • Stephen Robertson is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.
  • Graham White is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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