BLACK GANGS OF HARLEM : 1920-1939
The Numbers Game
The overt exclusion of blacks from the nations economic, social and political processes only served to foment alternative means toward becoming a part of established idealized factions. Black Americans were frequently denied access to bank loans, good jobs, nice homes, influential political positions, advanced educational opportunities and equal social treatment and benefits. Even those few who were affluent were still denied most social and political equalities and opportunities. To be a black person in
Black crime in
Gunnar Myrdal, in his American Dilemma, implies that a class system exists within the black underworld and, other than traditional vices, there is a number of big shots organizing and controlling crime, vice, and racketeering, as well as other more innocent forms of illegal activity such as gambling particularly the policy, or the numbers, game. The underworld has, therefore, an upper class and a middle class as well as lower class. The shady upper class is composed mainly of the policy kings. They are the most important members of the underworld from the point of view of their numbers, their wealth and their power. The policy game started in the Negro Community has a long history. This game caught on quickly among Negroes because one may bet as little as a penny, and the rewards are high if one wins (as much as 600 to 1). In a community where most of the people are either on relief or in the lowest income brackets, such rewards must appear exceptionally alluringDuring most of its history the policy racket in the Negro community has been monopolized by Negroes.
The numbers game (policy game) is a form of lottery that Harlemites played on a daily basis. Even black professionals, influential, and so called respectable, people played or participated in the games. The game is played by players betting on a series of three numbers from 0 to 999. Numbers runners would collect the money from the bettors each day, leave each bettor a receipt from what was called a policy book, and then take the cash and policy book to the clearing house, also known as a policy bank. A player would win if his/her numbers matched a preset series of three numbers, which were found in daily newspapers as the last three digits of either the NYSE total, U.S. Treasury balance, or total bets at a selected racetrack. The numbers game seldom favored the players because the results were often fixed.
By 1931, there were several big time numbers operators, James Warner, Stephanie St. Clair, Casper Holstein, Wilfred Brandon, Jose Miro, Joseph Ison, Masjoe Ison and Simeon Francis. Although the numbers game was a nickels and dimes operation, it provided Harlemites an opportunity to gamble and hopefully win on, or hit, a series of numbers to supplement their meager incomes.
The numbers game made its policy bankers very wealthy. It was not unusual for these bankers to extend loans and financing to
Rufus Schatzberg and Robert J. Kelly, in their book, African American Organized Crime: A Social History, state that, In purely economical terms, policy is a form of gambling; it is also a capital resource being circulated throughout a community, generating a livelihood for some and expectations for many others. It may also be understood as a response to the economic apartheid operating in the community. Being illegal, policy operated outside of the law but did not conduct its enterprises secretively: policy, or the numbers game, was openly played in the ghetto streets, storefronts, and social establishments. Few feared arrests; most played regularly and avidly, dreaming of winning to help pay bills, buy a refrigerator or radio, visit relatives in the South, or give the children a respite from the squalor of the big-city streets. Throughout The Roaring Twenties and The Great Depression the numbers game thrived in