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Our book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, won the General History Prize at the 2011 NSW Premier’s History Awards.

The prize citation read:

Telling the story of New York’s gaming underworld in the first half of the last century, this is a brilliant work of recuperative cultural history. It has taken a forgotten aspect of New York gambling history, contemptuously dismissed as ‘nigger pool’, to recreate a complete social underworld – a dynamic, insouciant Black American cultural and urban topography of the streets.

Gambling a few pennies or shillings on numbers was the black economy of the interwar years; it enabled some black people to make themselves millionaires, and many more ordinary black folk to ease the psychic pains of the worst economic depression in history.  The success of the numbers system meant, too, that they had to fight to defend their business from being taken over by white racketeers using political influence and the machinery of violence.  Digging into forgotten archives the authors have recovered the lost worlds of the poor, the fugitive, the illiterate and the criminal.  This is a work of scholarship that conveys the excitement and flair of a thriller.  It tells a wholly original story based on research that has long been though impossible to find.

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Shane White was interviewed by Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM here in Sydney this morning, talking about the history of New York City, Harlem and the numbers.  The interview is available as a podcast on the Classic FM site.

Shane was also interviewed by Alan Saunders on the By Design show on ABC Radio National, talking about Harlem and Digital Harlem. A podcast of that interview is available.

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Another review of our book, Playing the Numbers, has appeared, in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, available online – and accompanied by this great illustration

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The first review of our book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, has appeared, in the Wall Street Journal

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With the publication of our book Playing the Numbers drawing near, I’ve added some more pages explaining the game:

  • how the number was generated
  • how players chose a number to bet on,
  • how the policing of numbers worked
  • who operated the game, the bankers and kings and queens.

I’ve also added a new resource, selections from a dream book — the texts that translated dreams and events from everyday life into three digit numbers on which to bet.

(click here or the tab at the top of the blog to see these pages)

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The map of Numbers arrests is currently one of the Featured Maps on the Digital Harlem site; simply click on the image in the right hand column of the site to see the map. The pop-up box that opens contains an abbreviated version of the information contained in this post.

In the 1920s, Numbers gambling was a black-owned and black-run business—one of very few in Harlem—that turned over tens of millions of dollars every year, as roughly one in two of the district’s residents bet with some regularity. It was also illegal, and undercover police officers, including some black officers, regularly arrested those operating or playing the game.

How did Numbers work? See the “Learn More about Numbers” pages

Most of the 553 arrests on this map are from 1925, the one year in our sample when Numbers was prosecuted as a felony, and as a result, appears in the DA’s files.

Overview of Numbers Arrests

Overview of Numbers Arrests

A wide view reveals a significant number of arrests downtown, in the San Juan Hill neighborhood, the centre of New York’s black community before blacks took up residence in Harlem. This map is a stark reminder that even after Harlem opened up for African Americans, large numbers of blacks remained living in San Juan Hill and would continue to do so until they were displaced by the post-war building of the Lincoln Center, a fact that is seldom considered in accounts of twentieth-century black life in New York.

If you zoom the map in on Harlem, it is clear numbers was played everywhere in the district.

Numbers arrests in central Harlem

Numbers arrests in central Harlem

The racket was not concentrated in any particular area, indeed evidence of numbers was present and obvious on virtually every street and avenue in Harlem. Many numbers runners operated in stores, particularly cigar and stationary stores, and hence there are concentrations of arrests along Lenox and 7th Avenues, and West 135th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, Harlem’s retail strips. Other arrests, more typically of blacks, took place on the streets: many runners stationed themselves on the city’s streets and avenues, particularly in the morning, as Harlemites travelled to work, accepting business from passing pedestrian traffic.

Turning on the lines linking arrest locations to the residences of those arrested highlights that almost all those in the racket lived in Harlem. (Residences are indicated by the building icon)

Arrests linked to residence of the offender

Arrests linked to residence of the offender

With all 533 arrests on a single map, it is impossible to make out that relationship in central Harlem: to make it clear, this map includes only arrests from January 1925:

Arrests from January 1925 linked to offender's residence

Arrests from January 1925 linked to offender's residence

Those arrested were runners and collectors and a few unlucky players. Numbers “runners” collected bets from individual gamblers. They passed the day’s bets and takings on to their “banker.” Runners worked on commission, skimming off twenty percent from their total receipts before they passed them on.  As well, if one of a runner’s client’s bets hit, the individual gambler was obligated to pay the runner ten percent of her or his winnings. Only very rarely did the police net a banker, some of whom were so successful they became the Kings and Queens of Harlem. Those arrested were an ethnic mélange, a collection of mostly recent migrants from Europe, the Caribbean or the American South trying to get ahead in the big city.

In 1925, when these arrests took place, the courts prosecuted those involved in numbers for the offense of playing policy, an old law that targeted betting on the results of a lottery.  That that law did not fit was obvious to many magistrates, who had been dismissing the numbers cases that came before them.  Those who were indicted appeared to juries guilty of nothing worthy of punishment, leading to acquittals, and to prosecutors recommending pleas bargains in which defendants who pled guilty paid only a $25 fine.

The Clearing House numbers game existed for almost exactly a decade. It began in 1920 or 1921 and ended when the Clearing House stopped publishing the statistical information on which the game depended.  Bankers came up with alternative ways of generating a daily number, using figures from the NY Stock Exchange and the parimutuel totals paid out on horse races at race meetings at various tracks throughout the country, and the racket continued to expand.  By the early 1930s, white gangsters, searching for alternative sources of income as Prohibition came to an end, moved to take over numbers from black bankers.  They never entirely succeeded, and day-to-day operations in Harlem largely remained in black hands, but a good proportion of the revenue did end up in the coffers of the white mob.  After July 1, 1926, policy was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Just what sentence a conviction carried depended upon how many slips an individual had in their possession: a handful brought only a suspended sentence, whereas 30 or 40 resulted in 90 days hard labor.  But that happened only when the arresting officer was not paid to turn a blind eye, and there is abundant evidence that many officers did just that.

Our book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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