Inside Edition

Inside Edition 9 Nov 2019

Her Mom Ran an Underground Lottery Business


"From the time I was born, my mom was running numbers," Bridgett Davis told

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You know, forever
I didn't want to tell anyone about this,
even after my mom died.
She died in 1992, so imagine how long
I have continued to hold this secret.
(upbeat music)
From the time I was born,
my mom was running numbers.
She had started the business two years before I was born,
so I just knew nothing else.
It was my normal and it really always felt
like my mother was just in charge,
and had her own business, and I was proud of that,
but I also knew that I had it to keep it secret,
and I knew I had to do that because I was aware
that it was seen as illegal,
and I didn't want her to be at risk ever,
so my siblings and I kept it secret.
My name is Bridgett Davis, and I wrote
The World According to Fannie Davis:
My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers.
The numbers are very much like the lottery.
In fact, they are a precursor to the lottery,
so if you have ever seen anyone go to a bodega
and play a number, you know about the lottery.
You know about the numbers.
So, for instance, you can play lotto,
everyone knows about that, or Mega Millions,
but this is a little different.
You actually get to choose three numbers in any order,
and make that the thing you play that day,
and if those numbers come out, you win.
So in this system, my mother was a bookie and a banker,
and that meant that people turned their bets into her.
They literally would come by the house,
or they would call her and say,
"Fannie, I want to play my numbers today.
"I want to play 682 for a dollar,
"911 for 50 cents," et cetera,
and that was her job on one level.
But my mom was pretty high ranking,
so she wasn't just a bookie.
She was a banker and that meant that she actually
quote, unquote, "banked the numbers."
She provided the bank, so if you won,
you play with her and you won,
she paid you out of her own reserve.
For decades this game was being played,
and we called it an informal economy,
a kind of underground lottery system,
which are really lovely ways of saying
it wasn't quite legal yet.
But there was a time when it was
made to be perceived as improper gambling,
and that was not an accident,
but within the black community,
the numbers was not seen as bad.
It was understood that this was a thriving economy,
and imagine it, you know, these numbers men and women
were employing people, giving them jobs,
and they were using their money, their largesse,
for all kinds of really practical things.
They were helping people start small businesses,
they were giving college scholarships.
Folks don't know this, but the NAACP,
that really important black organization
that has been around forever,
they were funded in the early years
by numbers men and women,
so it was circulating throughout the community,
and those dollars were turning over a lot,
and that keeps the community thriving.
If you hit the number and you have some extra money,
maybe you'll go to Sarah's Beauty Shop,
and basically get your hair done a little more often.
Maybe you'll go to Sally's Diner
and have breakfast three days a week.
You're really helping to stimulate the economy
with that money, and that's the thing that
black folks just understood.
Thanks to this country's history,
black folks have had to rely upon each other forever,
and so people saw the benefit.
(upbeat music)
I love how people come up with their numbers.
You need some kind of method, so how do you choose?
Some people like to play their birth dates
or their anniversaries, or their license plate numbers,
or their home addresses.
My favorite is that a lot of people like to play
their favorite Bible verse.
Some people thought that the best thing to do
is to play numbers based on what you had dreamed.
I mean, my mom would ask that to me all the time.
Did you have a good dream last night?
And so, how does that work?
Well, if you dream of fish, you can look that up
in a dream book and see what it plays for.
A dream book is this incredible encyclopedic guide
that lists every person, place, or thing
you could imagine that someone could dream about,
and it assigns a three digit number,
so for instance, fish would play for 692.
If you dreamed about floating on a blue cloud,
you can look up floating, blue, you can look up cloud,
and your gut tells you hmm, I think this is the one to play.
The numbers still exist.
It's not as thriving as it once was.
It's really a much, much smaller business,
but imagine those older Detroiters, you know,
who actually came of age with this game.
Many of them are still in business,
and that money, even though it's not a lot,
it makes a difference in their lives.
I understand why people say her mom ran
an underground illegal lottery business,
because that's ultimately what it was,
so I'm okay with that.
I love the expression Mama was a numbers runner,
but then sometimes people are like well, what is that?
So I know you kind of have to add that other piece to it.
I guess in an ideal world I'd want you to say
she gave her family a thriving middle class life
by running a business that was underground.
My son was nine years old and he asked me one day
when he looked at a picture of her, what was she like?
And I said she was amazing.
People actually admire her.
So I think my mom's smiling from on high, you know?
Yeah. (dramatic music)

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