Mama Was a Number Runner: On The World According to Fannie Davis

March 26, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 4 min read

Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”

Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.

The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.

But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.

The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.

But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.

This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.

Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.

covercoverBut such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

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