The Secret Life of a Woman Who Ran an Underground Lottery in Detroit

Growing up in Detroit, Bridgett Davis knew to keep her mom's work a secret, but in her new book, “The World According to Fannie Davis,” she documents the underground lottery business her mother ran.

Bridgett Davis’ mother ran numbers. 

Growing up in Detroit, Bridgett knew to keep it a secret. But in her new book, “The World According to Fannie Davis,” Bridgett documents the underground lottery business her mother ran in the 1960s, when what she was doing was illegal. 

“From the time I was born, my mom was running numbers,” Davis told “I was born into that world… So I just knew nothing else. It was my normal. And it really always felt like my mother was just in charge… I was proud of that.”

Running numbers was common in the black community during the time. Participants would choose any three numbers on a given day and if those numbers were the ones that turned up that day, you won. In the business, there were bankers and bookies. Bridgett's mother, Fannie Davis, was both. 

“They would call her and say, Fannie, I want to play my numbers today. I want to play six, eight, two for a dollar. Nine, one, one for 50 cents, etc,” Davis said. 

People would play bible verse numbers, numbers they’d seen in dreams, or whatever they thought would get them lucky. 

“And that was her job on one level to accept those bets. But my mom was pretty high ranking, so she wasn't just a bookie, she was a banker. And that meant that she actually banked the numbers. She provided the bank. So if you won ... you play with her and you won ... she paid you out of her own reserve," she said

At the time, Bridgett, who is now a novelist and professor, knew she had to keep what her mom was doing a secret.

“I didn't want her to be at risk ever,” Bridgett said.

Although illegal, Bridgett said that “running numbers” wasn’t seen as bad within the black community. It allowed many black businesses to be funded, provided jobs, and helped many financially — her family included. 

“[The] NAACP, that really important black organization that's been around forever, they were funded in the early years by numbers men and women, that numbers money,” Bridgett said. “So it was circulating throughout the community and those dollars were turning over a lot. And that keeps a community thriving. Because you know if you hit the number and you have some extra money, maybe you'll go to Sarah's beauty shop and basically get your hair done a little more often.”

Bridgett knows her mom's lifestyle helped her afford her and her siblings. 

“We knew that's why we were able to go to good schools and why we had extras and luxuries and tons of food falling out of the refrigerator,” Bridgett said. “So imagine that. You don't have a negative feeling about that at all. You actually have a sense of quiet or secret pride, but you also have a very active protectiveness.”

When Bridgett's 9-year-old son asked her one day about his grandmother, she said, she realized she had kept her mom’s secret really well.

“But that means I had kept her secret from my own children. And that was when I began to understand that it was more important to tell,” Bridgett said. "And then I found, fast forward all these years, the books out in the world, people actually admire her. So I think my mom's smiling from on high, you know?"