Harlem Vice: Playing the Numbers

In New York City during the 1920s, an employee of the New York Clearing House, an august downtown financial institution composed of the city’s elite banks, would descend every day and mark three numbers on a chalkboard, each of which was meant as a general economic indicator to be used by the financial industry. Two of these numbers were immediately copied down by a different sort of employee and phoned uptown to a different sort of bank, one whose doings possessed a good deal more relevance for the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who had recently transformed the sleepy neighborhood of Harlem into a budding “black metropolis.”

The uptown bankers, known colloquially as “kings” and “queens,” dealt not in stocks and bonds but in millions of paper slips, each one marked in pencil and each one representing a one, five, or maybe a ten-cent bet placed by a resident on the outcome of a three-digit number derived via a set formula from that day’s Clearing House results. “Playing the numbers” was a cultural institution in Harlem, one that about half the neighborhood’s population seems to have engaged in each day, one that tied them in strange ways to the city’s licit economy, but one that has been strangely understudied by scholars, who in the past have trained their focus largely on the high-cultural manifestations of Harlem’s remarkable flowering.

Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars takes a different tack, utilizing the authors’ remarkable research to tell a story that illuminates the lives of the ordinary Harlemites who most often form little more than a colorful backdrop to accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. 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 astronomical success of “bankers” like Stephanie St. Clair and Casper Holstein attracted Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, and organized crime, fresh off Prohibition and in need of a new hustle, to the game. By the late 1930s, most of the profits were being siphoned out of Harlem. All in all, 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.

Interestingly, the authors of Playing the Numbers are four Australian academics who received a grant from their government to research this remarkable phenomenon. You can get a taste of the data itself on an innovative website they’ve produced called Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930, which won the Roy Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History this year from the American Historical Association.

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