Until then, lottery games existed, but the winning numbers were often chosen in unreliable ways that could produce rigged results. According to the 2010 book “Playing the Numbers,” Holstein came up with an ingenious solution. Using the Clearing House totals to produce a random combination between 000 and 999, he came up with a daily three-digit winning number for a new kind of lottery game. His invention became known simply as the numbers.
It was an immediate hit and quickly created a sprawling underground economy that moved through Harlem and other black communities in the U.S. For 60 years, the numbers reigned supreme as New York City’s pre-eminent daily lottery game — until 1980, when the state decided it wanted in.
In Detroit, my own mother, Fannie Davis, ran a numbers business for 34 years. That business provided us, her children, with a solid middle-class life, including a spacious family home, beautiful clothes and college educations — and, thanks to our inheritance, generational wealth. While the numbers were illegal, and therefore had to be kept a secret, I knew about another girl with a parent who ran numbers: Her name was Francie and she lived in Harlem, and she was real to me, even though she was in fact a character in a book.