Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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 America was to be a person looked upon by many in white society as an inferior and non-deserving being. Many black Americans turned to illegal resources to offset the economic denials. 

Video Cover: Hoodlum, was about black Harlem gangsters
Video Cover: Hoodlum, was about black Harlem gangsters
 

Black crime in America was independently run and usually involved such traditional vices as thievery, gambling, prostitution and robbery. Bolito (the numbers game) and drugs became key factors in the evolvement of black organized crime during the 1920s and 1930s. According to Francis A. J. Ianni, in his book Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime, By 1925 there were thirty black policy banks in Harlem, several of them large enough to collect bets in an area of twenty city blocks and across three or four avenues. More than 800 runners (bet collectors) spent each day hurrying back and forth between betting customers and the policy bank (clearing house). Bets could be made throughout Harlems beauty parlors, bars, restaurants, pool halls, barber shops, drugstores, cleaners, stores and other business establishments. Runners even went to peoples homes where they could place bets right at their doorsteps.

An American Dilemma
An American Dilemma
 

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 Harlem residents, which could not be obtained from white operated financial institutions. The policy bankers would also contribute funds for various community services and causes, as well as the financing of educational institutions for black children. In Ivan Lights book Numbers Gambling Among Blacks: A Financial Institution, he notes that, Banks combine the savings of depositors to create a capital fund for business, mortgage and consumer investments numbers banks mimic this rhythm, first taking the savings of the poor, then returning capital to the poor community in the form of usurious loans, free loans, philanthropy and direct business investments by racketeers. Therefore, numbers gambling banks are an irregular financial institution. In short, the numbers game were a vital and viable part of Harlems everyday economic and community life. 

<em>African American Organized Crime: A Social History</em> by Schatzberg & Kelly
African American Organized Crime: A Social History by Schatzberg & Kelly

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 Americas urban communities. White organized crime gangs were not interested in the numbers racket because they considered it a small change operation for only the poor.

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