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.
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.
[Playing the Numbers] draws on an array of sources—from the back issues of Harlem’s newspapers, to probation reports and the case files of the New York City district attorney, to the literature and memoirs of the Harlem Renaissance—to illuminate the scope of the numbers game and the sometimes harmless, sometimes farcical, often sociable, but ultimately insidious ways it permeated nearly every aspect of Harlemites’ daily lives and even their dream lives. The result: an intricate sociology of organized crime.
Brilliantly reconstructs the world of the numbers trade, showing how it provided, for at least a decade and a half, a space for an African American entrepreneurship that mirrored, in a gaudy and distorting way, the mainstream financial institutions and activities of the city. There is astute attention throughout this book to this shadow relationship to mainstream commerce… The research underlying this short and elegantly written book is extraordinary. Years of detailed work in New York judicial and legal records, as well as in newspapers and literary sources, makes this an almost uncannily well-informed book… This is history as work of art, a dazzling demonstration of what can be done with sources—such as lower court prosecutor records—so voluminous and so miscellaneous that they have never been mined in this way before.
Playing the Numbers is a gripping, sometimes violent, often humorous tale of politics, commerce, community and culture, a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the history of Harlem or the mechanics of the most elaborate informal economy in the nation.
A brilliant reconstruction of a critical African American—and American—institution. Essential reading for those who play and those who don’t.
Deeply and imaginatively researched, Playing the Numbers reveals how a simple game of chance evolved for thousands of Harlemites in the 1920s into a central part of their everyday life. A fascinating study of the interior of black society, the sights, styles, and sounds of the black metropolis.
Most folks living in Harlem in the 1920s ‘hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance,’ Langston Hughes once observed. ‘And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.’ But everyone in Harlem knew about the numbers, and those who hit the daily ‘gig’ earned plenty… This is a wonderful, unconventional, utterly original book.
- 320 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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