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Playing the Numbers

Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Shane White
Stephen Garton
Stephen Robertson
Graham White
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 320
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    Playing the Numbers
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05696-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue (pp. 1-9)

    Henry Moon sat on the edge of his chair in Madame Queen’s tastefully modern apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. In 1933, this fourteen-storey building was the tallest on Sugar Hill, Harlem’s ritziest area, which sloped north from 145th Street to 155th Street and was bounded by Amsterdam Avenue to the west and Edgecombe Avenue to the east. It was a few blocks of stately apartment buildings and uniformed doormen overlooking the Valley, as Central Harlem, densely populated with mostly poor blacks, was known. Quite simply, then, 409 Edgecombe was the best address in Harlem. At various times, W. E. B....

  4. Introduction (pp. 10-31)

    It was hardly news, more of a filler item making page seventeen of a Sunday edition of theNew York Worldin late March 1928, wedged among advertisements for Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia, Freezone, a guaranteed cure for painful corns, and S. Baumann & Bro., who apparently had been supplying New Yorkers with home furnishings since 1854.

    “Spring is here!” began Lester A. Walton, a special writer for theWorldand one of the few black reporters working for the white press, and “the soap-box orator has made his reappearance on the street corners.” Walton then proceeded to give a...

  5. 1 History (pp. 32-57)

    Although there were elements in the Clearing House numbers game that were strikingly new, the practice of gambling on the chance that a number or series of numbers would turn up had a history that went back to the colonial period. In the second half of the eighteenth century, lotteries were a commonplace in the colonies and later the United States. Ticket receipts in the early years of the nineteenth century in New York were in the region of $2 million a year, a very large sum, given that the population of the city was less than 100,000. Ostensibly, lotteries,...

  6. 2 Beginnings (pp. 58-76)

    The precise origins of the practice of gambling on the Clearing House numbers are shrouded in myth. More than was the case with most endeavors, numbers was fueled by publicity. Indeed, it was the most oral of activities, though inevitably some of those spoken words made it into the written record. Rumor, gossip, and innuendo about who had just had a hit, what number was going to turn up at 10:00 a.m. the next day, who had been arrested and who had not, which banker had left town rather than pay off a hit, and the lifestyle of the Kings...

  7. 3 Dreams (pp. 77-101)

    The principal selling point of Casper Holstein’s scheme was the use of the Clearing House figures to generate the day’s number, a number that would therefore be random. Unlike the situation with policy in the 1840s, when gamblers and agents alike were duped by pigeon numbers, or, in the 1890s, when Al Adams ran a system that on some days was totally rigged, the Clearing House numbers gave everyone exactly the same chance—one in a thousand—of coming up with the winning number. Given the amount of money gambled and the size of the potential winnings, it is hardly...

  8. 4 Turf Wars (pp. 102-125)

    Given the amounts of money involved in the Clearing House numbers, there was, right from the beginning, an inevitable jostling over territory. In the early 1920s, divisions often tended to run along ethnic lines. According to theNew York Agein 1924, West Indian bankers were said to “operate mostly among their own West Indian folk,” an observation that the newspaper thought was “in keeping with a characteristic trait of the migrants from the Caribbean.” Much the same was true of other groups, be they Spanish-speakers or black migrants from the American South (the relationship between the runners and the...

  9. 5 Numbers’ Lore (pp. 126-146)

    By 1925, not only was numbers a full-blown craze, obsessing both the waking and dreaming hours of large numbers of Harlem residents, but it was also the case that whites and blacks were pitted in a bitter, occasionally violent struggle over who should control the racket. It had been some time since numbers could be dismissed as something too petty to bother about. Both the police and the city’s legal authorities were forced to take cognizance of the new form of gambling known as the Clearing House numbers. Initially, the very novelty of the Clearing House numbers caused the district...

  10. 6 Of Kings and Queens (pp. 147-174)

    In February 1927, theAmsterdam Newsprinted, in its magazine section, a short fictional piece by Claire M. Halley entitled “Fickle Lady Luck.” It described the rise and fall of Sweet Cider, “the cynosure of All Eyes,” instantly recognizable as one of the avenue’s dandies, sporting his “gray fedora hat, pearl gray suit, suede gloves of a similar hue, gray-topped patent leather shoes, and oh, his cane—the blackest ebony that could be purchased!” Sweet Cider may have started off as “a hallboy or a porter, or something equally as menial,” but when he saw the main chance he seized...

  11. 7 The Dutchman Cometh (pp. 175-199)

    For the Black Kings and Queens of Harlem, the late 1920s was a fabulous time. Even the onset of the Great Depression seemed of little moment, barely making an impact on the Kings’ and Queens’ rapidly growing businesses—businesses that were turning over tens of millions of dollars. From the perspective of the late 1930s, one writer in the usually measuredNew York Timeswent so far as to label numbers in those years before 1931 “a brilliant Harlem success story.”¹ There was, of course, a price for this success. Numbers was no longer a secret outside Harlem and San...

  12. 8 Of Banks and Bankers (pp. 200-229)

    For all the modernity of the way in which the numbers business was conducted, there was a brittleness at its core. It was as though blacks in Harlem were striving too hard, too eager to show that they were part of twentieth-century America. Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of numbers was the way in which, right from the start, organizers of the game deliberately attached it to the coattails of the city’s financial system. This was apparent not only in the method of calculating each day’s number from Clearing House and (later, in the 1930s) New York Stock Exchange...

  13. 9 All Over Town (pp. 230-249)

    After almost two years “on the lam,” hiding in and around New York City to avoid being arrested by Thomas Dewey, being indeed unable to go anywhere without the most elaborate planning, Dutch Schultz was going a little stir crazy, and undoubtedly did not realize how isolated he and his gang had become. In these years, Lucky Luciano was melding the Unione Siciliana into what we know as the Mafia, and Dutch Schultz and his operation were the last big independent power left in the metropolitan area. Even then, Schultz was not all that independent: the Unione Siciliana, through Ciro...

  14. Epilogue (pp. 250-252)

    The reign of Harlem’s Black Kings and Queens was relatively short, their glory days lasting less than fifteen years. By the late 1930s, the terms “King” and “Queen” had fallen into disuse, to be replaced by the seemingly more appropriate “numbers banker” or “racketeer.”¹ Dutch Schultz and others of his ilk had tainted the numbers game, and it would never quite regain its former splendor. In the 1920s, there had been very occasional rumors of leaked Clearing House numbers or fixed results; but by the mid- 1930s, when the basis on which the winning number was worked out had been...

  15. Notes (pp. 255-285)
  16. Acknowledgments (pp. 286-292)
  17. Index (pp. 293-300)